Special Report

State Policies on Kindergarten Are All Over the Map

By Michelle Galley — January 10, 2002 3 min read
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While more states are offering full-day kindergarten, and some go so far as to make attendance compulsory, others don’t require districts to offer the earliest grade at all.

When kindergarten began in the United States in the mid-1800s, it took two forms. One was publicly financed “charity kindergartens” for poor children, similar to today’s state-subsidized preschools aimed at low-income youngsters. The other took the form of privately run centers. Parents paid tuition for their children to attend, akin to the way private preschools work now.

Kindergarten is based on the teachings of Friedrich Froebel, a German educator who believed that children were not properly prepared to enter school, and that mothers needed coaching in the best ways to care for their offspring.

Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, proponents of educating children at an early age began lobbying for more kindergarten classes. ''The movement was never to make kindergarten compulsory,” says Barbara Beatty, an associate professor of education at Wellesley College and the author of Preschool Education in America. “It was to mandate that districts offer kindergarten.”

Now, more than 100 years’ later, state policies still vary on how--and even if--districts must offer kindergarten.

Today, every state pays for some kindergarten: either for a portion of the school day or in selected districts. Twenty-five states subsidize all-day kindergarten statewide or in districts that choose to offer it, as does the District of Columbia.

But even as talk of the importance of high-quality preschool education reaches unprecedented levels, some states--Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, and Pennsylvania--do not require districts to establish kindergartens, according to an Education Week survey conducted for Quality Counts.

“Most of these states where you see that kindergarten is not mandated are typically locally controlled states when it comes to education,” says Michelle Exstrom, a policy associate with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Currently, 13 states--Arkansas, Delaware, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia--and the District of Columbia require children to attend kindergarten. In Rhode Island, Tennessee, and West Virginia, the law requires that youngsters attend kindergarten even though they do not have to start school until they are 6, the age at which children customarily enter 1st grade.

The age at which children enter school has been a topic of debate in recent years. In North Dakota last year, a bill to lower the entrance age from 7 to 6 failed. Lowering the age for admission would mean more children attending school earlier, thereby driving up costs, says Exstrom.

All-Day Kindergarten

Meanwhile, legislation that would extend the school day for kindergartners from the traditional 2 ½ hours to a six-hour, full-day program has been moving through statehouses around the country.

Proponents of all-day kindergarten say that providing pupils with more instructional time will better prepare them for the demands of 1st grade by giving them more exposure to the curriculum and to the school environment. For many children, an all-day program also cuts down on the number of places they are sent to during and after the school day.

Only eight states require districts to offer full-day kindergarten. The District of Columbia public schools also provide full-day programs.

Oklahoma passed legislation last year that requires districts to offer full-day kindergarten. But the mandate will not take effect until the state increases per-pupil pre-K-12 spending to what state legislators deem to be an adequate level.

To solve the space problems many districts face in extending kindergarten programs, Oklahoma lawmakers gave district officials the option of contracting with neighboring districts or with licensed public or private child-care programs. The district would put licensed teachers in all those kindergarten classrooms, and they would be operated as public schools.

Finding teachers to fill the extra slots can also be an obstacle to extending the kindergarten day. Though certification requirements for kindergarten teachers vary by state, school administrators often shift other elementary teachers, who may not have the same training in early-childhood education, to kindergarten.

A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2002 edition of Education Week


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