A new report on kindergarten readiness from the United Way of Dane County is a major disappointment.
The report, the product of a task force chaired by Madison School Supt. Art Rainwater and attorney Ave Bie, certainly means well and provides modestly helpful suggestions for launching 5-year-olds into schooling.
Who can argue with its call for developmental screening of all children in Dane County? Or for better education, and more technical support, for child-care providers?
But the task force apparently fell victim to ill-informed focus groups and ignored the major institutional changes that are needed to improve kindergarten performance.
Dorothy Conniff, the city's retired director of community services, calls the task force's proposals "relatively weak, low-return solutions." She sees a far greater potential benefit in ideas it did not embrace, like having the state subsidize higher quality child care for poor families and the Madison school district establishing 4-year-old kindergarten.
That last point needs to be emphasized. Not a single word is said in the United Way report about instituting kindergarten for 4-year-olds - as two-thirds of Wisconsin's school districts already do - despite the documented problems facing Madison kindergarteners.
How bad is it? Thirty-eight percent of the children taking the kindergarten screening test last March didn't demonstrate age-appropriate skills, according to school district data.
That figure rose to an unacceptable 59% for African American kids, 69% for Hispanics and a stunning 81% for southeast Asian kids. In contrast, the number of white kids not demonstrating age-appropriate skills as they enter kindergarten was a relatively modest 21%.
Think about it: Could there be more graphic evidence that the racial and ethnic "achievement gap" that bedevils Madison school children is already evident on the first day of kindergarten?
Too often, young children start kindergarten lagging in vocabulary, social skills and other attributes. These are problems that persist five, eight and 12 years later.
Though the Madison district periodically touts how it's closing the achievement gap, a reading of the district's failed application for federal funding for redesigning the high schools suggests a dire situation.
Written in sometimes apocalyptic terms, the application cites a "profound disparity of achievement levels" that is "alarmingly and consistently apparent" in all four high schools.
For example, only 29% of black students and 26% of Hispanics at Memorial are rated proficient or advanced readers, versus 85% of white students.
The results for math at Memorial are almost as bad: 38% of blacks and 35% of Hispanics are rated as proficient or advanced, compared to 86% of white students.
Meanwhile, black students have dramatically higher drop-out and expulsion rates. The application quotes Madison Police Chief Noble Wray as saying that high school has become a "pipeline to prison" for many low-income students of color.
These shocking words aren't so shocking to anyone who's heard Connie Ferris Bailey and Jonathan Barry of Operation Fresh Start and former Mayor Paul Soglin eloquently describe the worrisome phenomenon of "disconnected youth."
These are the kids who have dropped out of school, who are not just jobless but lack the life skills to hold jobs, and who are often the products of chaotic families where responsible adult behavior is not modeled. These young people are, not surprisingly, the cause of much of the neighborhood crime and disruption that Madison is seeing today on its north and southwest sides.
The good news is that the feds refused to fund the school district's proposal to revamp the high schools. The plan was wrongheaded in many respects, including its seeming intent to eliminate advanced classes that are overwhelmingly white and mix kids of distressingly varied achievement levels in the same classrooms.
This is a recipe for encouraging more middle-class flight to the suburbs. And, more to the point, addressing the achievement gap in high school is way too late. Turning around a hormone-surging teenager after eight years of educational frustration and failure is painfully hard.
We need to save these kids when they're still kids. We need to pull them up to grade level well before they hit the wasteland of middle school. That's why kindergarten for 4-year-olds is a community imperative.
As it happens, state school Supt. Elizabeth Burmaster issued a report last week announcing that 283 of Wisconsin's 426 school districts now offer 4K. Enrollment has doubled since 2001, to almost 28,000 4-year-olds statewide.
Burmaster nailed it when she cited research showing that quality early-childhood programs prepare children "to successfully transition into school by bridging the effects of poverty, allowing children from economically disadvantaged families to gain an equal footing with their peers."
The 4K movement is picking up steam nationally as well. The Wall Street Journal reported in August that 38 states now help finance 4K programs. Spending is up 75% in just two years, to $4.2 billion nationally.
"The winning pitch" for convincing skeptics, the paper reported, is portraying quality pre-K programming as a prudent investment for the community. As George Kaiser, a Tulsa oil millionaire who's given $20 million to the early-education cause, tells his Republican friends: The kids who take part "will end up as productive citizens rather than in the correctional system."
It's painful that Madison has yet to come to the same conclusion.
What's holding us back? Isthmus contributor Jason Shepard reported last year that a combination of implacable teacher-union opposition and funding questions killed a serious 2003 proposal by Madison's early-childhood providers to offer 4K throughout the Madison district. (Note: Workers at those centers are not represented by Madison Teachers Inc., which is a big issue for MTI.)
Disappointingly, four years have passed with no new plan being advanced. When I spoke to Rainwater last week, he suggested that the biggest impediment isn't the union but financial - the two-year ramp-up period before full state funding would kick in for 4K students. In round numbers, he thought that the financial gap for those two years was about $9 million.
I suppose we can hope that Santa Claus will put a big sack of money under the school district's holiday tree. I'd rather cross my fingers that the business and labor leaders of United Way will step forward in 2008 to lead a one-time community fund-raising campaign to cover the transitional costs of 4K.
Failing that, the school board could steel itself and go to referendum next year to raise the necessary funds. A compelling argument can be made that there is no smarter community investment for Madison than 4-year-old kindergarten.