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HELENA - Full-day kindergarten, flexible school schedules and Indian education for all students should become elements of public education in Montana, some members of a state education commission said Monday.

The state's School Renewal Commission, a board of 28 people charged by the Legislature to develop alternative funding and operating strategies for the state's public elementary and secondary schools, spent Monday morning putting the pieces of a free, quality education together.

The commission is expected to again discuss and then vote on these proposals next month.

"This is a no-brainer," said Rep. Holly Raser, D-Missoula, a teacher. "Full-day kindergarten and pre-school are absolutely imperative."

State law requires school districts to offer at least a half-day kindergarten program, but no law forces children to enroll.

Proponents of full-day kindergarten said the program's $12 million to $15 million annual cost would be offset by avoiding the social costs - like unemployment and incarceration - incurred later in life by high school dropouts.

But the proposal does have its opponents. Rep. Pat Wagman, R-Livingston, a former school trustee, said state-funded kindergarten is an abdication of parental responsibility.

"I don't believe it's society's responsibility to train a kid at every level," Wagman told his colleagues on the commission. "Parents are making the decision to work two jobs and putting their kids second."

And commission member John Fitzpatrick, a NorthWestern Energy official, said he would support full-day kindergarten only if local school districts found ways to fund the program within their existing budgets.

"If they want to cancel the varsity football program, that's fine," Fitzpatrick said.

In addition to a mandatory, state-funded, all-day kindergarten, commissioners said flexible school schedules - schedules that could find students in class in the evening or during the summer - would give local school districts flexibility with time and, possibly, money. A year-round schedule would also keep students' minds sharp and prevent regression, officials added.

"Some children truly need some opportunities from late May to late August if they're truly going to move forward," said commission member Darrell Rud, executive director of the School Administrators of Montana.

As for Indian Education For All, school officials said half of Montana's Indian students drop out of school between eighth and 12th grade. The state needs to do more to improve learning conditions for Indian children, as well as educate non-Indian children about the ways of their neighbors.

"Our system right now is broken," said Rep. Norma Bixby, D-Lame Deer, who has served as a school trustee. "You just need to do a little more for Indian children."

Any recommendations this interim committee adopts will be forward to the Legislative Education Subcommittee in time for the 2005 Legislature.

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