State lawmaker seeks cuts to 4K

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January 8, 2011
— Milton Schools' fledgling 4-year-old kindergarten program could be threatened if a state lawmaker gains support for a plan that would kill new 4K programs statewide.

State Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, said he plans to introduce legislation in the state's upcoming budget sessions that would prevent state aid from being applied to new, public school-based 4K programs.

The lawmaker said he also seeks to reduce state aid for existing school 4K programs and put an end to state grants that fund 4K.

Grothman, who opposes all school 4K programs, says that amid a projected $3.3 billion deficit in the state's next biennial budget, the state must slash spending on "unnecessary" programs.

"The state is in a budget crisis, and we can't support programs that aren't necessary," Grothman said. "We should not allow districts that haven't had it (4K) to begin it. We can't be adding new programs now."

The Milton School District is poised to start an optional 4K program in fall 2011, following the school board's approval of a district plan to staff teachers for several sections of 4K at local daycare centers.

Milton Schools Superintendent Bernie Nikolay bristled at Grothman's comments, which statewide media outlets began reporting last week. Nikolay called the lawmaker's plan to kill new 4K programs "picking and choosing" and deemed the idea "implausible."

"I have no idea how he (Sen. Grothman) would be able to kill new programs and leave others alone. It doesn't seem to be feasible or fair," Nikolay said.

The district plans to pay for some of the $725,000 in startup costs for its 4K program next year with savings from a switch in the teachers union's health insurance carrier. But Nikolay said if the state backed away from funding 4K, it would put Milton's new program in financial jeopardy.

"It would be very difficult for us to have a 4-year-old (4K) program. It would be true across the state," he said.

Area school districts including Janesville and Edgerton already have 4K programs, and about 85 percent of other schools in the state have 4K. Some of the programs have existed since the 1990s.

State lawmakers have made failed attempts in recent years to kill funding for 4K, and it's unclear whether Grothman's plan would gain wider support in the state Senate.

State Sen. Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said lawmakers this week were focused on special session bills. He said he's heard no talk in the Statehouse about Grothman's proposed 4K cuts.

Fitzgerald said lawmakers likely would focus on "big picture items" in K-12 education funding rather than cuts to 4K, but he stopped short of dismissing Grothman's plan.

"We have a huge fiscal crisis in front of us, and so nothing's off the table," Fitzgerald said.

Overall, state enrollments in 4K have tripled in the last 10 years, with school districts projected to collect about $233 million in state aid and taxes for 4K programs, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

Last year, 4K programs cost $82 million in property taxes and $140 million in state taxes, the agency said.

Grothman said he's considering a proposal that would change the state aid formula by cutting state aid by 25 percent for part-time 4- and 5-year-old students. He said the move would target all existing 4K programs in the state.

"Districts would have to decide on their own whether to have the programs or not," he said, adding that he also seeks to abolish state grants that fund 4K.

Grothman said money saved through the cuts could be redistributed to increase state aid payouts to high school students.

School districts statewide this year are allowed to collect a maximum of $10,316 in state aid plus property taxes, per full-time student, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau reported.

While supporters argue that 4K programs better prepare students for learning later, Grothman cites several reports including a Georgetown University study that show how some states with 4K programs have failed to see long-term improvements in student achievement.

Nikolay said the district is moving forward with its plans next year for 4K. He said the district plans informational seminars on the program in late January or early February.

"I haven't heard anything more than one legislator that's advocating this. That's a far cry from the law being changed," Nikolay said.

"Unless something significant happens with legislation, it's not affecting what we're doing."

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