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Published in Print: October 18, 2000, as Arizona Says It Won't Pay For Local 'Early' Kindergartens

Arizona Says It Won't Pay For Local 'Early' Kindergartens

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A practice in several Arizona school districts of admitting children who missed the kindergarten cutoff date to a separate "early" kindergarten program may well have helped a lot of children learn the skills they need for school.

But the state says it's no longer going to pay for it.

According to state law, children must turn 5 before Sept. 1 to enter kindergarten, and 6 by the same date to start 1st grade. But the law also says that districts have the option of admitting children whose birthdays fall between Sept. 1 and Jan. 1 "if it is determined to be in the best interests of the children."

To serve those children, districts created early-kindergarten programs, and then moved those children into regular kindergarten the following year.

But in a Sept. 15 opinion, Attorney General Janet Napolitano concluded that state law does not allow districts to use state money to pay for early kindergarten if the program is designed to prepare children for regular kindergarten. The state's education funding formula only covers preschoolers with disabilities.

"An early- kindergarten program that, under the district's curriculum, prepares students for kindergarten is not eligible for funding through the formula," the attorney general wrote in her opinion. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan had asked for the guidance after an article on such programs appeared in The Arizona Republic newspaper.

"In essence, we double-paid for kindergarten for those kids," said Laura Penny, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Education.

1st Grade Affected, Too

Ms. Napolitano's decision also applies to "early" 1st grade programs, which many districts also offer. In some cases, such programs have been used as an alternative to regular kindergarten for children who attended early- kindergarten classes, while in others they have accommodated children who had never attended school before attempting to enter 1st grade.

State officials say they don't know how many districts have been providing early programs of kindergarten or 1st grade. But they say the programs seem to be most common in the greater Phoenix area.

Districts have now been asked to recalculate last school year's enrollment figures without including the children in such programs. Those counts are used to determine funding for the current school year.

Ms. Penny added that the law appears pretty clear about what the state will pay for, but that districts were just trying to offer a preschool experience to children who probably would not have had one otherwise.

"Good for them for thinking outside the box, but they should have checked with someone first," she said.

Officials in districts that offer early kindergarten or 1st grade say they are not sure how they are going to respond to the attorney general's opinion, but stress they don't want to turn children away.

"We need to internalize this and figure out what direction we are going to go," said Gary L. Aungst, a spokesman for the 12,000-student Tempe Elementary School District. "We will look at every possible way to continue what we feel is an incredibly worthy program."

The district currently has about 150 children in early kindergarten at seven schools.

In the 14,000-student Alhambra elementary district, where 85 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, Superintendent Carol G. Peck, a former kindergarten teacher herself, said teachers "continue to be amazed at the difference it makes" when children attend the early-kindergarten program.

Pros and Cons

In deciding whether to continue such programs, districts will now have to weigh the disadvantages of retaining children in kindergarten who are not ready to move on to 1st grade against the "advantages of having an early start in school," Ms. Peck said.

Patricia Likens, a spokeswoman for the state education department, said agency officials hope districts will find other funding sources for prekindergarten programs. Both district and state officials expect the issue to arise during the legislative session next year.

"Maybe we need to change the law," Mr. Aungst said.

Vol. 20, Issue 7, Page 17

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