I did not learn all I need to know in kindergarten. Maybe some of you did. But kindergarten all day, every day, all year-round?

The Washington Post reports today that suburban D.C. school systems are on a fast-track for all-day kindergarten, by 2010 at the latest. As a Jeffersonian localist, I am happy for community school boards to decide what programs they want, and how extensive they’re to be. What I find interesting is the overheated rhetoric here, and elsewhere, about the “urgent” need for “early childhood education” that lasts all day, everyday.

I don’t dispute that children in all-day kindergartens may learn to read quicker than those in half-day kindergartens. But does this early reading really lead to advanced scholarship later on? If so, one would think the near-ubiquitous presence of “preschool” programs in American culture would have lead by now to a new renaissance of brilliance within the American population. But that hasn’t happened.

Even more importantly, aren’t there aspects of the development of children that aren’t quantified by how early childen can pencil in bubbles on a state-mandated test? Is there nothing of value in children being, well, children: playing outside, throwing water balloons, chalking up the sidewalk with pictures?

Some will say that there are many children, maybe even most, who don’t have this option because of dual-income American socio-economic factors. Perhaps so, but that’s another debate. The push toward all-day kindergarten or year-round grade school or “after school programs” that last until 6 or 7 PM are almost always framed in terms of educational quality, what’s best for the child. If it’s really about freeing up parents to work, then let’s at least be honest about that. Only then, might we be able to have a conversation about how to address the very real economic and social strains all around us.

I’m less worried about public school systems putting scholar’s caps on toddlers than I am about local churches not thinking through and teaching that it is okay to let children be children.

How many church day-care centers advertise themselves in precisely the same terms: early education centers that will give children a competitive edge academically. No one is saying it is wrong for churches to provide such services in certain cases. There are churches that are able to minister to single mothers by providing a range of crisis intervention ministries, of which this is just one.

It seems though that the churches doing this most successfully aren’t profiting from it financially. And they’re not claiming it’s about propelling Johnny to the head of the academic line.