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Stay flexible on kindergarten hours

The Medford School District's elementary principals are proposing fiscally prudent expansion of kindergarten hours that stops short of the full-day kindergarten state education officials want, but the state may not agree to pay for it. State officials should reconsider.

The state Legislature in 2011 recommended local districts move to full-day kindergarten and promised funding starting in the fall of 2015 to districts that took that step. Districts are understandable skeptical that the state will cover the extra costs as promised. A legislative session may not legally obligate future legislatures to spend money.

Even if the state money is forthcoming, Medford educators say a three-quarter day makes more sense both financially and in terms of its value to students.

All Medford elementary schools offer at least half-day kindergarten, running from 7:55 to 10:45 a.m. or 11:15 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Expanding to a full 7:55-2:30 day would cost the district $3.8 million. Going to a three-quarter day, 7:55 a.m. to 1 p.m. would cost $2.6 million.

In addition, some studies indicate 5- and 6-year-olds aren't ready for a full six-hour day. Jacksonville Elementary School Principal Joe Frazier, who researched the issue for the district, says the three-quarter option would be a good transition from kindergarten to the full-day first grade schedule.

A state Education Department representative, however, said Medford would receive funding only for half-time kindergarten if it chose to offer only a three-quarter day.

Oregon has a track record of going its own way in response to federal mandates and negotiating waivers, with health care reform as well as education, to achieve the stated purpose with no loss of funding. It hardly seems fair to penalize local school districts that make a well-researched decision in the best interest of their students by withholding funding.

Gov. John Kitzhaber's proposed budget for the 2015-17 biennium includes additional funding for a range of pre-third grade education programs designed to increase student success, including money for full-day kindergarten. If that money does end up in the final budget adopted by the Legislature, Medford may want to again consider the full-day option. But if local school officials decide a three-quarter day is the best choice for students, the state should respect that and provide the necessary funding.