Sept. 7, 2022
It’s surprising that in 2022, children living in most states don’t have to attend kindergarten. They are required to attend second grade. They are required to attend sixth grade. Yet, only 19 states and the District of Columbia require children to attend kindergarten. Because kindergarten is not required, it can be perceived as less important— leading to more student absences.
While most kindergarten-aged children do attend some type of kindergarten, their experience depends on where they live. In some states, public school kindergarten is provided and funded in the same way as first grade. In other states, it is funded at a lower level and may only be offered for a few hours each day. This wide variation means children are getting uneven starts to their formal education.
Over the last two decades, kindergarten has changed quite a lot. Researchers helped us understand that young children can learn quite a lot from a very young age, even from birth. And, the federal government instituted requirements for more rigorous learning standards in the states. A half-day of kindergarten may have been adequate at one time, but that’s not true today. Educators don’t have enough time in 2.5 to 4 hours to teach the standards in the ways that young children learn best and in a way that keeps them interested in learning.
How do young children learn best? The answer to this question can be found in the science of child development. Young children need opportunities for hands-on exploration, question-asking, and discovery; positive relationships and enriching back-and-forth social interactions; and targeted and personalized instruction that is tailored to a child's specific needs, growth, and development across multiple domains and subject areas that are aligned to a state's standards. That’s a tall order for a few hours each day. What can happen in half-day kindergarten is that children get literacy and math instruction but miss out on learning in a playful way, opportunities to build strong relationships, and time to explore what interests them. And those latter pieces are just as important for first grade and their future academic success.
Every year there are states and local districts that consider expanding access to full-day kindergarten. This year Idaho, Utah, and California are worth looking at.
For several years, Idaho legislators have introduced full-day K legislation, but it hasn’t moved forward. Some school districts and charter schools have offered full-day K as an option anyway, but for others, without state funding, the cost is prohibitive. In the 2022 legislative session, Idaho legislators passed House Bill 790 which added $46.6 million to the state’s literacy funding, bringing the total to $72 million. Schools are allowed to use the additional funding to augment the kindergarten day, but they are not required to do so.
While this is a good step for Idaho, this funding approach leaves full-day K vulnerable in the future. Making full-day kindergarten funding part of the state’s school funding formula would make dollars more stable. Nevertheless, this fall, several Idaho school districts are starting to offer full-day K, expanding full-day K, or no longer charging tuition for full-day K. The two largest districts, West Ada and Boise, will offer tuition-free full-day kindergarten to all families. Parents will still have the option for half-day kindergarten.
Utah is another state moving to make full-day K more accessible for children and families. House Bill 193 appropriated $12.2 million for a state grant program for districts to provide or expand full-day K. The full-day K grant considers four criteria for deciding where to distribute funds, including socioeconomic need, geography, efforts to expand full-day K, and the receipt of ongoing federal funds. The funding was a little more than a quarter of what would be needed to provide full-day K to all interested families. According to news reports, the Utah State Board of Education received applications from 28 of its 41 school districts and 36 of more than 100 charter schools. The Board awarded grants to 26 districts and 19 charter schools and is hoping for additional funds next year to meet local community interest. As with Idaho, this funding approach can expand access in the short term but does not necessarily provide stable funding for the future or to ensure quality.
In California, lawmakers passed two kindergarten bills that are awaiting the Governor’s signature. Senate Bill 70 would make kindergarten mandatory for children beginning in 2024. Right now kindergarten is not compulsory and parents do not have to enroll their children in school until age six. The new law would require most children to complete kindergarten before entering first grade.
The second California bill would require districts and charter schools (that provide kindergarten) to offer at least one full-day kindergarten classroom (equivalent to the length of the first-grade day) beginning in the 2025-26 school year. These bills have come up before. In 2014, then-Governor Jerry Brown vetoed making kindergarten compulsory. But more recently California has been moving toward expanding full-day K along with expanding transitional kindergarten. In 2018 and 2019, California lawmakers allocated one-time funds for school districts to construct or retrofit facilities to increase family access to full-day kindergarten.
Shifting to full-day kindergarten brings a host of challenges for states to help schools and districts address, including limited space, staffing needs, new materials and equipment, and how to make the most of more time. But strengthening children’s early school experiences is worth it and these challenges are manageable with a phased approach, a strong implementation plan that engages involved parties, and consistent stable funding that enables high-quality kindergarten. Making kindergarten required and providing it for a full day (equivalent to other elementary grades) recognizes its important role in children’s education and reinforces the value of their regular attendance.
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