Report Urges States to Clarify Policies, Adjust Aid for Full-Day Kindergarten

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States need to clarify and strengthen their policies on full-day kindergarten in order for youngsters to receive high-quality learning experiences during this critical year, concludes a study released by the Education Commission of the States.

The Denver-based organization’s analysis of kindergarten statutes in all 50 states found that most states lack policies that guarantee access to full-day kindergarten, don’t have rules for how kindergarten programs should be paid for by the state, and don’t have specific standards regarding instructional and teacher quality.

States also vary widely on how they define a full day: Some say four hours constitutes a full day, while others require six hours. And most states don’t collect data on which children in their states—based on their race/ethnicity or family income—are attending half-day or full-day programs, the report adds.

While half-day kindergarten has existed for most children since the 1930s, this report comes as more states and local districts are instituting full-day programs as one strategy to help narrow the academic achievement gaps between middle-class and disadvantaged children.

Kristie Kauerz, the early learning program director for ECS and the author of the report, writes that full-day programs also recognize that close to 70 percent of children attend some center-based preschool before kindergarten, and many of those students are used to attending a full-day program before they enter kindergarten.

“Full-day kindergarten provides continuity for children who are accustomed to full-day experiences outside the home as well as continuity with schedules in 1st grade and beyond,” the report says.

Ms. Kauerz also noted that full-day programs have benefits for working parents, such as offering them one place where their children can go while they are at work. Teachers benefit as well, she wrote, because they have “more time for both formal and informal instruction” promoting cognitive development as well physical and social-emotional learning.

Because kindergarten serves as a bridge between early-childhood education programs and the rest of the K-12 education system, learning standards for this grade should be connected to those for both preschool and for 1st grade and beyond, Ms. Kauerz recommends. They should also reflect not just facts and general knowledge, but other areas of a young child’s development, including language and literacy, and physical, motor, and social development, the report says.

Funding Incentives

Even though she recommends that states require local school districts to offer full-day kindergarten, Ms. Kauerz writes that in the absence of these policies, states can encourage districts to expand their kindergarten programs to a full day if certain financial incentives are in place.

For example, a district has an incentive to offer full-day or half-day kindergarten when the per-pupil funding from the state is the same or greater than it is for 1st grade.

But an even stronger incentive exists when the level of funding is greater than it is for 1st grade and more money is provided for full-day than for half-day kindergarten. Seven states—Alaska, Georgia, Illinois, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, and Wisconsin—offer both these incentives.

Some states, however, create disincentives for local districts by setting per-pupil aid rates that are lower for kindergarten than for 1st grade and by offering the same amount of funding for a full-day program as they would for half-day kindergarten. Nineteen states pay for kindergarten this way, the report shows.

As it is, only nine states actually require that districts offer full-day kindergarten, and only two of those nine require that children attend full-day kindergarten.

Ms. Kauerz recommends that even if states can’t afford to pay for full-day programs for all, they should implement strategies that enable districts to offer full-day classes for certain populations of students, such as those from disadvantaged families or those in schools that are not meeting adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

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