Doing responsible thing

Published 11:28 am Saturday, January 19, 2013

I can speak from personal experience about the realities of under-funded schools.

Last summer, my wife and I faced a dilemma regarding our then 4-year-old daughter’s education. Having a birthday that falls just a few days past the cutoff for kindergarten meant while we knew she was intellectually prepared, we struggled with whether she was developed enough emotionally. So we had her tested to enter the pre-kindergarten in Southampton County Public Schools.

Southampton’s pre-k program is a good one. It is designed to help at-risk children who are considered to have any of a number of risk factors – low income, family instability, below average preparedness to enter school, etc. – catch up to grade level and have a better chance of success when entering kindergarten.

It also allows for other children who are where they should be developmentally to enter school early as leaders and positive examples for the kids who are behind the curve. However, unlike regular K-12 classes, children are granted enrollment in the program based on a limited number of spaces.

Each applicant must be tested and evaluated and, based on their need, those that are considered to be at the greatest risk are enrolled first.

At our kids’ school, there has historically never been an issue of having more children applying for the program than the number of spaces available. Of course, that was until this school year.

So when we received a letter stating that our daughter would not be able to enroll based on the results of her evaluation, we were pleased to know that she was doing well enough to not be considered at risk, but frustrated that there was no room for her in a public school. Nineteen children had applied for a classroom that had 13 spots, and she didn’t make the cut.

Fortunately, based on the fact that her birthday falls so close to the cutoff date, the county, in accordance with state code, allowed her to be evaluated for kindergarten preparedness. She was deemed eligible and started in school this past fall.

We were lucky. But what about those children whose families weren’t?

I can’t presume that all of the other five children denied admission were classified as being at risk, but I do know that at least a couple of them were. And so the question is, what happens to those children who have risk factors that may jeopardize their chances of following a normal educational path, but just not as many as the children who are admitted into the program?

Do we just cross our fingers and hope for the best? Or maybe a better question is, what do we really mean when we say we support public education and want to give children their best chance to succeed?

Is it something we say just because it sounds right, or do we really consider the consequences of our actions when we place other priorities above our most valuable natural resource?

Funding public education is, at best, a difficult proposition. Cash-strapped localities receiving less funding from the state than ever but still required to follow state mandates, don’t always have the funds to meet the school’s needs.

In Southampton County, where the public cry for frugality drives many of the decisions made by the board of supervisors, elected officials are under tremendous pressure to allocate even less of the county budget to the schools than even they may like.

And given the fact that the members of the board collectively have no children among them who attend the county schools, well, their motivation to fully meet the school district’s financial needs may not be as strong as it could be.

Does that mean I believe the board of supervisors should automatically fork over whatever amount the school board’s budget requests? Absolutely not.

Because until the school board becomes more accountable to the taxpayers of Southampton County or the board of supervisors who funds their budget, I’m not willing to state that the money allocated to the schools is always spent as well as it could be.

What I do believe, however, is that when we don’t provide the schools with what they really need to properly educate all of our children, well, there’s just no excuse for that.

I’ve gone on at great length in the past about why good public schools are so vitally important to the health and future of our community — real estate values, economic development and so on. So important that if all other financial means are exhausted, I believe we should seriously consider an increase in taxes.

Those who somehow manage to fall to the political right of me will call me a liberal for saying it. Those who claim to be for responsible government will probably say it will ruin the county if we do it.

I say that not fully funding the schools will ruin the county faster than a 5-cent increase in real estate taxes ever will, and if some thinks it makes me less responsible or conservative for believing that, then so be it.

If we are to believe ourselves as truly being in support of a more responsible government, let me ask you this; if even one child this past fall who desperately needed it was denied an opportunity in the pre-kindergarten program at one of our schools because we chose to only fund 13 spots instead of 14, how responsible are we really being?

As the school board works on preparing its budget and the board of supervisors decides on whether or not to approve it, that single question should dictate their decisions.