Kindergarten Access and Quality: A Look at the Leading States

It’s surprising that even today some children around the country don’t have access to free, full-day kindergarten. When young kids have access to high-quality full-day kindergarten programs, they have a greater opportunity to build the developmental and academic skills needed for the later grades and beyond. And, as more children have access to full-day pre-K, it only makes sense to continue to offer students full-day programs as they transition to kindergarten. In addition, a full-day program gives teachers the opportunity for more child-directed learning and imaginative play in the classroom.

In a recently released report from New America’s Early & Elementary Education Policy team, we ranked all 50 states and the District of Columbia on 65 policy indicators in seven policy areas that foster children’s literacy skills for third grade reading proficiency. We grouped states into three categories-- crawling, toddling, or walking--based on whether or not states met our policy indicators. One of the policy areas that we analyzed was full-day kindergarten.

In our analysis, we reviewed access to and quality of full-day kindergarten within each state across four key policy indicators. We did not review whether states had chosen developmentally-appropriate curriculum or instructional strategies, but we did consider whether states have a reasonable class ratio, a minimum length of day that was equivalent to first grade, a ban on charging tuition for full-day programs, and a district requirement to offer full-day kindergarten.  

Shockingly, only 12 states (most of them in the south) require their school districts by statute to provide full-day kindergarten. Two additional states (Washington and Rhode Island) are in the process of transitioning to statewide full-day kindergarten programs. As of 2014, thirty-five states do not require kindergarten attendance at all. Without the requirement in statute for districts to offer kindergarten, particularly full-day programs, kindergarten becomes vulnerable particularly when local budgets are constricted. For instance, in Massachusetts, funding for many of the state’s full-day kindergarten programs was in jeopardy this past summer after the governor made a line item budget veto that was eventually overturned by the legislature.    

Even in the districts that do offer full-day K, it’s not always a true full-day of learning. In other words, only 27 states set a standard for the length of full-day K (when it’s offered) that is equivalent to first grade. In several more states, districts may offer full-day programs that range from four to seven hours. And, when districts offer half-day kindergarten, children could spend as little as 2.5 hours per day learning, even less when you factor in transitions between activities.

More than 10 states allow districts to charge families tuition for their children to attend full-day kindergarten in a public school. These policies limit equitable access to full-day kindergarten programs. While some districts do not charge tuition to low-income families or use a sliding scale based on family income, that is not guaranteed. Kindergarten should be seen as an essential grade for a child’s development and academic career, but in most state statutes it is not.    

The map below shows the top 11 states that stood out in our scan for having policies that support greater access to full-day kindergarten programs. Many of these states rose to the top for requiring full-day kindergarten that is equivalent in length to first grade as well as banning tuition for full-day programs, both essential policy levers for allowing students and families to have equal access to full-day kindergarten. (To learn more about how individual states perform according to our policy indicators, check out our data analysis tool, Atlas.)

Kindergarten Access and Quality: A Look at the Leading States
(New America)

In our scan of full-day kindergarten, almost half of the states were “walking” and most of the rest were “crawling.” Alabama and North Carolina met every indicator that we tracked in this policy area. However, our indicators, did not include measures of classroom environment, per-pupil funding, or instructional quality. Even in Alabama and North Carolina, there is work to be done. It’s worth noting, that North Carolina is one state that has made improving kindergarten a focus, particularly in teaching and learning. 

As state legislative sessions continue, policymakers and state education leaders should make kindergarten a priority by creating policies to ensure that every child has access to a free, high-quality, full-day program. After all, without a strong follow-up to pre-K, it will be much more difficult to  sustain  the learning gains made in earlier years. "


Shayna Cook is a policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America. She is a member of the early & elementary education team and the Learning Technologies project. Cook researches and reports on a wide array of policy issues concerning children from birth through third grade.