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Closing the state’s early achievement gap

10.02.2010 | Merced Sun Star | Ken McNeely

Ken McNeely is president of AT&T California.

I recently visited a school district in Montgomery County, Maryland,where at-risk students are reaching incredible heights.

This district has a student population that mirrors many of ours here in California: 65 percent of students qualify for free meals, 30 percent speak English as a second language, and the student mobility rate is 22 percent.

California schools, despite being very similar demographically, are significantly outperformed by Montgomery County schools.

What is the key to Montgomery County’s success: A laser-like focus on the early years.

The achievement gap starts before children even begin school. This is why high quality early education is a fixture in Montgomery County and will be a staple of the California education system as well.

Fortunately, the Legislature has passed a forward looking early childhood education bill that would implement Montgomery County-like reforms authored by state Sen. Joe Simitian, SB 1381.

The bill, which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed Friday, will be the most important piece of early childhood legislation the state has seen in years. SB 1381 would require that students be 5 years old before enrolling in kindergarten.

Changing the start date will actually save the state money, and these savings will be put toward creating a “transition kindergarten” program for some of our most at-risk learners — those children who might otherwise start kindergarten too young, before they are emotionally and intellectually ready to thrive.

In fact, California was one of only four states that still allowed children to turn 5 as late as December during the school year they start kindergarten.

SB 1381 will deliver more age and developmentally appropriate instruction to approximately 120,000 4-year-olds, while simultaneously reducing the number of students retained in kindergarten and first grade, shrinking the number of special education referrals and enhancing student test scores.

As a business leader and Silicon Valley Leadership Group board member, I also understand the unprecedented return on investment offered by quality early childhood education.

In addition to academic benefits, SB 1381 will pay financial dividends both in the near and long term.

The state could save $35.3 million due to reduced grade retention in the first two years alone. Nationally, 18.4 percent of children repeat a grade by the time they finish the third grade, and of those children, 50 percent do so in either kindergarten or first grade.

California will also see special education costs decrease. Children who attend high-quality preschool programs are 11 percent less likely to be placed in special education.

When transitional kindergarten is fully implemented, this could lead to state savings of $49.7 million per year. In addition to the substantial savings to the state and significant benefits to the community at large, the business community benefits from strategic investments in its future work force.

As a father of two, I care deeply about the quality of California’s education system. What I like best about SB 1381 is that it is a policy that is proven to be effective. By focusing on providing quality early childhood learning experiences, like they do in Montgomery County, we can ensure that California’s students enter school ready to learn.

When students start school with a solid foundation, it translates into enhanced success throughout the entire education pipeline, resulting in a more college-ready workforce.

SB 1381 is fiscally responsible, beneficial to the business community, and most importantly, the right policy for California’s kids.

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