Respect or ridicule?

Two recent developments in Salem suggest Oregon lawmakers can't decide whether they want to be respected or ridiculed.

The one that is worthy of respect: The (three) co-chairmen of the Joint Ways and Means Committee announced they had reached a compromise on a proposed budget. They not only accomplished this despite a 30-30 split in the House of Representatives, but they did it earlier in the session than is customary.

The one that has already generated ridicule: On Thursday, the Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill requiring all Oregon school districts to provide free all-day kindergarten — and provided exactly zero dollars to pay for it.

But wait — the mandate doesn't take effect for four years. Maybe the state's economy will rebound enough by 2015 that the state can easily find the $100 million this enhancement may cost.

And maybe pigs will fly.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Susan Castillo said the legislation "makes a clear commitment to providing all Oregon students with a strong start that puts them on the path to future success."

There is no question that children who spend more time in kindergarten have a better chance of succeeding in school. But ordering local school districts to provide a new service four years down the road with no idea where the money will come from isn't a clear commitment. It's an empty promise.

The Medford School District would have to hire 24 teachers to extend all-day kindergarten district-wide, at a cost of about $2 million.

Just a week before the Senate imposed the new mandate, the Medford district announced it was forced to cut all-day kindergarten next year from the seven elementary schools that provide it now because the federal money it was using to cover the cost had to be spent elsewhere. That is just one of many cuts the district will have to make to cover a $13 million shortfall in next year's budget.

Let's be clear: All-day kindergarten is a worthy goal, and something all school districts should provide. But it should not be imposed from Salem without money in the state budget to pay for it.

The best part of the bill prohibits districts from charging tuition for all-day kindergarten to parents who want it and can afford to pay. That option was discussed locally but correctly dismissed as unfair.

Lawmakers should be spending their time addressing problems they can solve now. Lofty promises for 2015 just make them look silly.

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