You may think that all students have equal access to kindergarten when they reach age five. Yet six states — Alaska, Idaho, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania — don’t have any law requiring school districts to provide any kindergarten at all, according to a report from the New America Education Policy Program.
Just 11 states and Washington, D.C. require public schools to provide free, full-day kindergarten by law. The remaining require at least a half day to be provided, but 12 allow districts to require that parents pay for the second half of the day themselves. While data is sparse, estimates indicate that one in four kindergarten-age students aren’t in full-day classes, and even those who are may be in districts whose definitions of “full day” are very short.
The report notes that Arizona’s experience with this issue sheds light on how difficult it can be to expand full-day kindergarten. In 2004, the state narrowly passed a bill that would phase in full-day funding for all schools by 2007. But in 2006, a new bill modified the original plan by eliminating the original fund and instead changing the funding formula for kindergarteners, but still left the level lower than what is provided for students in higher grades. And while the original bill had a statutory requirement that money was to “be spent only for full-day kindergarten instruction,” the second one dropped that requirement. It also eliminated funding that would have helped schools increase classroom space to accomodate full-day classes. Things got even worse in 2010, when in the face of a $4.6 billion budget shortfall the state eliminated the funding altogether. “Overall, the lack of statutory protection for full-day kindergarten and a weak incentive for expansion through the budget left the state especially vulnerable in the tenuous budget climate following the 2008 financial crisis,” the report notes.
In 2013, New America conducted an informal survey of 102 school districts and found that just 87 percent provided free full-day kindergarten.
Other states have had similar experiences. Pennsylvania is one of the six states without any kindergarten requirement for its schools. Recent cuts to school funding have pushed some districts to reduce full-day kindergarten programs to half days. In Colorado, Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) signed a bill that would have expanded full-day kindergarten throughout the state, but it was contingent on a $900 million tax increase that failed on November’s ballot. By contrast, however, some statues, including Minnesota, Nevada, Oklahoma, and Washington, have begun expanding full-day kindergarten.
Funding has proven important to the success or failure of other early childhood expansions. In New York, for example, the state promised universal preschool in 1997, but the promise has yet to be fulfilled given that funding has been consistently undermined.
These problems come at a time when school funding remains low, especially for younger children. Early childhood education got a boost from the 2009 stimulus bill, but spending fell to a low of $21.5 billion last year, with state spending experiencing the first year-over-year decline per child in a decade.
Studies have found that full-day kindergarten programs lead to modest gains in reading and math, although some found that the scores converged in later grades, according to the New America report. But full-day programs are also vital to working parents, many of whom struggle to pay for childcare and need somewhere for their children to learn while they go to work.
President Obama’s universal preschool plan also addressed the issue of full-day kindergarten by allowing states to use a portion of the funding to expand their programs throughout the state so long as all low- and middle-income children also get preschool.