On Campus: A fair shot at college might take a better shot at kindergarten

Posted by Nan Austin on January 8, 2014 

When high school student Eliana Montalvo took up her pen to argue against affirmative action in college admissions, her point wasn’t that minority students no longer face challenges.

In accepting an award from the American Heritage Scholarship competition for her essay, Eliana argued there is a better way to even the playing field.

“Focus on equal opportunity in early education programs,” she told the Stanislaus County Board of Education. Her essay argues that a race-based test at its core is unequal and unfair to all parties. Far better to give everyone an equal shot from the start.

“By preparing individuals earlier in life, society can ensure that both majority and minority groups have equal access to higher education and an equal opportunity in molding the future of the United States,” Eliana wrote.

Her common-sense conclusion follows an uncommonly sensible argument, based on research into Supreme Court decisions, scholarly articles and the U.S. Constitution.

Eliana’s essay came to mind Wednesday, the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s declaration of a war on poverty. Listening to old news reels of his idealistic charge, it seemed like not much had changed.

“Too many are living on the outskirts of hope,” Johnson said, urging the nation to “replace despair with opportunity.” He started Medicare, food stamps and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – which President George W. Bush reauthorized as the No Child Left Behind Act – under that mantra.

Also Wednesday, state Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, introduced legislation to make transitional kindergarten available next year to every 4-year-old in California.

“It’s impossible to overstate how important these early years are to a child’s future success in school,” said co-sponsor Tom Torlakson, state superintendent of public instruction. “Transitional kindergarten – particularly a full-year, full-day program – can make all the difference.”

As the law stands, transitional kindergarten will be for 4-year-olds with birthdays Sept. 1 to Dec. 2 this coming year. Kindergarten today expects students to be reading simple books and writing basic sentences before those über-cute graduation struts at year’s end. Many 4-year-olds can’t keep up. To bridge the gap, transitional kindergarten has more academics than a preschool, but keeps classes more relaxed and social than regular kindergarten.

Making transitional kindergarten available to all birthdays would not be cheap, but then neither are any of the remedies schools pour on in later years to make up for a bad start.

It all comes down to getting every kid to the same starting line instead of trying to move the goalposts. Perhaps the war on poverty can still be won – beaten with bootstraps. But every kid will need a pair of boots.

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