10/26/11: The governor’s untimely mistake

This op-ed appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on the date shown.

I ASKED the students in one of my accounting classes Monday which of them knew the difference between a.m. and p.m. About a third of the hands went up. I then asked how many knew what time of day or night we changed from a.m. to p.m. They exchanged nervous glances but offered no answer.

Last week, I was invited to an event via Facebook. The event host, who holds a graduate degree, created the event for 3 a.m., an error that was only corrected when it was pointed out.

We take for granted that things like this are such basic knowledge that everyone has learned it along the way, that everyone knows a.m. is the abbreviation for the Latin ante meridiem, which means before noon, and p.m. is the abbreviation for post meridiem, or after noon. Experience tells me otherwise.

Which makes the governor’s refusal to apply for $60 million in federal funding for prekindergarten all the more mystifying.

Experts will tell you that investing in pre-K education benefits us all, as we save the costs of repeating grades or building prisons. Economists will tell you that investments in education are a source of economic growth.

Recognizing the value of pre-K, many parents have opted to enroll their children in such programs, often at significant cost and sacrifice. It is the parents who lack the resources, knowledge or both whose children are not able to participate and who spend their lives trying to catch up to their peers. These are the children who fall further and further behind, often dropping out before they even graduate from high school.

These are the children for whom the $60 million would make a difference.

I don’t remember when I learned the difference between a.m. and p.m. Kindergarten, let alone pre-K, was not something that even existed, as far as I know, when I was that age. I remember my older siblings — I’m the seventh of nine — delighted in teaching me things, so that when I entered first grade, I already knew how to read and write. The summer before first grade, I attended Head Start, which also helped prepare me.

One of my fellow 6-year-olds from first grade, my lifelong friend Jim, will tell you how much he despised me back then, how I was the teacher’s pet and a bit of a know-it-all. From third grade on, Jim and I lived on the same block.

Forty-plus years later, Jim still lives there, in the house in which he and his sister were raised by their grandparents.

Mrs. May’s first-grade class was the only one Jim and I ever shared, despite the fact that we attended school together for 12 years. In those days, we had different tracks for different students, depending upon how well we performed, even in elementary school. Beginning in junior high, this separation was so magnified that I saw Jim only on the bus each day as we rode to and from school.

Our paths didn’t diverge when we graduated from high school together, when he went to work and I went to college. Our paths diverged when we entered first grade.

Thanks to my family, I came to school prepared. One in seven kids in Virginia today does not.

Shame on Gov. Bob McDonnell for turning down that money.