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4K pays off for Janesville

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FRANK J. SCHULTZ
February 13, 2011
— Three years later, 4-year-old kindergarten looks like a stroke of financial genius.

The Janesville School Board was sharply divided before it approved its "Preschool for Janesville" plan in 2007.


The debate was largely about whether 4K would be good for children and for private preschool providers. But Janesville School Board members were well aware that it would net them extra dollars for education.


And that's what happened.


P4J, as it came to be called, was not a moneymaker in its first year. The district had to spend $787,976 more than it took in during the program's first year, according to an analysis by the district's financial staff.


But in the ensuing two years, the district received from the state $2.7 million more than it needed to run the program. That money went into the general fund to pay for other parts of the district's operations, officials said.


That money came at a time when enrollment in kindergarten through 12th grade was slowly declining. It also came when Janesville's economy suffered a stunning blow: the loss of thousands of jobs when the General Motors plant closed.


The additional revenue softened the blow, said district CFO Keith Pennington.


The influx of money came in state startup grants, federal Title 1 money and in state equalization aid, which is based, in part, on enrollment.


Because 4K students attend part-time, they are counted as 0.6 of a student when state aid is allotted.


The district could have brought in even more money because the increased enrollment raised the state revenue cap. The school board, however, voted to keep taxes lower than the maximum allowed during those years.


The grants and Title 1 dried up after the second year, but the district continues to receive more per-student state aid than the program requires, officials said.


Janesville officials believe that 4K attendance boosts 5K attendance, which also drives up enrollment, and that also boosts the district's finances.


P4J will continue to more than pay its way, if all other factors affecting state aid remain constant, Pennington said.


If the state alters the funding formula, for example, all bets are off.


Pennington cautioned that 4K financing might not work the same way for all districts. Most of Janesville's 4K classrooms are run by outside preschool providers. Janesville did not have to pay the overhead for those facilities, such as lights, heat and the space itself.


"It would be a different story if we had a different business model," Pennington said.


There's one more way that 4K might pay off. Advocates say that putting young children on the right path early, and identifying any special needs, will pay off throughout the life of the child.


"In the near term, investing in early learning can increase academic achievement and reduce costs associated with grade retention and special-education services," wrote Susan Schimke of the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association, in a recent opinion piece.


Schimke, of Clinton, continued: "Over a lifetime, investments in early childhood education generate big returns for all of us. According to research by Nobel laureate economist James Heckman, it's one of the most cost-efficient approaches to improving education, health and economic outcomes and lowering the costs of remediation and social dependence. During the course of their lives, children who experience quality early learning programs will be healthier, more self-sufficient and less likely to enter the criminal justice system."



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