Full-day kindergarten too important to be phased in

  • John Burbank / Syndicated Columnist
  • Tuesday, March 20, 2007 9:00pm
  • Opinion

When kids start kindergarten, are they ready to learn? Too often, according to a survey of kindergarten teachers, they aren’t.

In 2004, kindergarten teachers found that more than half of their new learners were not prepared for the academic and social challenges of kindergarten. This isn’t just a low-income problem. For those schools with mostly students from middle-income families, fully two out of five kids were deemed not ready to learn.

How do you get a kid ready for kindergarten? You make sure that she has high quality pre-kindergarten, good social skills, good behavior, and an eagerness to learn that has been nurtured since infancy. But for kids entering kindergarten, those years are already water under the bridge.

There is a common sense solution for this quandary: full-day kindergarten available to all kids. Students in full-day kindergarten spend one-third more time on reading and almost half more time on math than kids in half-day kindergarten. There’s a lot more time for individual attention. So it is no surprise that these kids do far better academically than their peers in half-day kindergarten. After all, with only 21/2 hours in kindergarten, most half-day kindergartners start each day re-learning yesterday’s skills and ideas. That doesn’t help them get ready to achieve in first grade and beyond.

But the state only pays for half-day kindergarten. This starving of kindergarten runs counter to the paramount constitutional duty “to make ample provision for the education of all children. …”

Our governor has proposed and the Legislature is considering a law to have the state pay for full-day kindergarten for 10 percent of entering kindergartners next year and 20 percent the following year. The governor proposes a decade-long ramp-up to enable all kindergartners to participate in full-day kindergarten. What is the hesitation? After all, if we are sincere in demanding and enabling our children to thrive in a world-class educational system, we don’t want to deny them this fundamental building block for educational advancement.

The math is not at all fuzzy. Next year, if this bill passes, about 65,000 kids entering kindergarten will not get state support to enable them to participate in a full-day program. The year after that about 58,000 kids will be denied this support. The year after this about 50,000 kids won’t get this support. Finally, in the fall of 2016, all entering kindergartners would have access to state-funded full-day kindergarten. In the meantime, 324,000 kids will have been denied full-day kindergarten, thanks to this “ramp-up” strategy.

This puzzle gets even more pulled apart when you read the fine print of the legislation and realize that the funding for full-day kindergarten is only for kids who are from low-income families. Funding for middle class kids is completely missing. So that could mean that some kids get to stay for full-day kindergarten, while others have to leave after 21/2 hours. Not much of a way, as our state Constitution mandates, for the Legislature to “provide for a general and uniform system of public schools” in a system that is supposed to provide education “without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex.”

The state is not the only funder for full-day kindergarten. Some of those schools with high proportions of low-income kids have full-day kindergarten funded through federal Title 1 money. For other districts, Initiative 728 money has been programmed into full-day kindergarten. And for districts with a high proportion of high-income kids, private tuition has supported full-day kindergarten.

But all this patching and filling still leaves out the vast majority of kindergartners, and, in particular, separates middle class kids from full-day kindergarten. These kids aren’t low-income enough to get federal funding for the schools’ meal programs, or to access Title 1 money for improved educational opportunity, and they aren’t wealthy enough for their parents to fork over an extra $1,000 of their own money for full-day kindergarten. These kids deserve the chance to participate in the foundations of a world-class education system. But it isn’t world class if we leave the middle class out.

There is a way out of this dilemma. The state could simply fund full-day kindergarten for all kindergartners. The cost would be about $177 million a year. With a budget surplus of $2 billion, that is a small price for a worthwhile investment in our kids.

John Burbank, executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute (www.eoionline.org), writes every other Wednesday. Write to him in care of the institute at 1900 Northlake Way, Suite 237, Seattle, WA 98103. His e-mail address is john@eoionline.org.

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