Matt Moreland-Gross sees "renewed energy" among political leaders and community groups to create a universal 4-year-old kindergarten program, a partnership between the city's licensed child-care providers and the Madison Metropolitan School District.
"Everyone seems supportive of this," says Moreland-Gross, an organizer for Dane County United, which solicited commitments of support for collaborative 4K from most of this spring's electoral candidates, including Mayor Dave Cieslewicz and school board winners Beth Moss and Maya Cole.
"Now we're looking for a political champion to make it happen," he says. "We'd love to see someone like the mayor step up and make this the priority."
Jack Jorgensen, the school district's director of student services, is also cautiously optimistic that creative ways can be found to fund a 4K program.
"There's overwhelming support and acknowledgement from research and experience about the value of providing early education," Jorgensen says. Long-term educational benefits could include a decrease in special education referrals and the need for social workers and psychologists.
"The blueprint is there," Jorgensen says. "It's a matter of resurrecting and adding to it."
Madison's failure to create a 4-year-old kindergarten program has been an embarrassment. Worse, it's stymied efforts to improve student achievement, especially for poor and minority kids who may begin kindergarten already behind their peers. And the issue will become more critical as the district's population of low-income students, now at 41%, continues to climb.
School officials do see the educational benefits of 4K. Superintendent Art Rainwater has said it "may be the district's next best tool to continue the trend of improving academic achievement."
So what's the problem?
Dorothy Conniff, the longtime supervisor of Madison's community services programs, has blamed union politics and district unease about loss of control for the proposal's demise. (See "How Can We Help Poor Students Achieve More?" 3/23/07).
Conniff's comments have irked school officials, who insist the proposal was killed by finances alone. "In the end, we just couldn't come up with the funding," says Assistant Superintendent Sue Abplanalp. And Jorgensen believes "we could have worked through" other concerns had funding been available.
It's fair to ask just how insurmountable creating a 4K program really is, given that well over half of Wisconsin's school districts have managed to do so, often in partnership with community child-care facilities.
Madison had a 4K program for targeted at-risk kids from 1988 to 2000, but the program ended after the state Department of Public Instruction required that any 4K program be open to everyone. In response, district staffers spent four years planning with child-care providers and the city to create a collaborative, universal plan.
In 2004, Rainwater threw in the towel, saying the district couldn't afford the estimated $5 million for the first two years of operation. (Under the state's funding formulas, districts don't receive full reimbursement from state and local funds until the third year of programming.)
There are several possible solutions. One is for state lawmakers to fix this funding anomaly, as they have for Milwaukee's voucher schools.
Another is for the school board to cut $5 million from elsewhere in its budget, although this week's budget debate made clear that finding cuts to offset new spending is exceedingly difficult. Or the district could seek help from the city, and under state rules phase in the program to save some initial costs.
A third possibility is for a donor to step forward to fund the initiative or jumpstart a fund-raising campaign. As Moreland-Gross notes, "The mayor had no problem raising money for a city pool. Why can't we be championing a drive to make sure every child is prepared for school?"
Finally, the board could put forth a targeted referendum, attaching accountability measures to the 4K program. In the past, Madison voters have supported smart spending proposals, as evidenced by successful new building, maintenance and borrowing initiatives.
Smaller referendums tied to measurable goals could be just the ticket for the district to advance new programs under revenue caps. And given the educational benefits and community collaboration, a 4K proposal could be an easy sell to Madison voters.
All of this, of course, assumes the district is correct when it says money, not union politics or micromanagement, caused it to shelve 4K.
On Monday night, community groups got mixed results from their efforts to stop school consolidation plans. Perhaps their political might could be transformed into fighting for a new program rather than protesting a budget cut. And for a school board and administration bruised by another tough year of budget debates, it may be cathartic to turn attention to making 4K a reality.