Early Childhood

Seattle Parents Paying for All-Day Kindergarten

By Catherine Gewertz — February 20, 2002 6 min read
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The chorus of parent voices is growing increasingly clear in Seattle, and it sounds like this: We want full-day kindergarten. And we want it badly enough that we are willing to pay $2,000 a year to get it.

Support for full-day kindergarten is on the rise around the country, not only among parents, but among educators and policymakers. Not all states provide the money to make it happen, however. So, in places like Seattle, some parents are footing the bill themselves.

For several years, two Seattle elementary schools have been charging parents $200 a month for 10 months to provide more full-day kindergarten slots than those financed with state and district money. Two more schools will adopt the “pay-for-K” model in the fall. The money covers the cost of hiring enough staff members to reduce class sizes from the typical 28 pupils to between 20 and 22.

In a district where parents can choose any school for their children, many Seattle school leaders are mindful that if they don’t provide services that parents value, they risk losing them—and the public funding that comes with each of their children—to another school. Adding more full-day kindergarten slots and reducing class sizes, administrators believe, can help draw parents.

“We have to be more entrepreneurial,” said Robert Radford, the principal of Greenwood Elementary School, which will add a second full-day kindergarten next fall and begin charging for the program. “We’re all in a crunch for resources, and full-day kindergarten and class size are crucial things for delivery.”

The popularity of full-day kindergarten is evident this month as thousands of parents troop through Seattle schools to help them decide which one their children will attend. Many are asking about full-day kindergarten, administrators say, as part of that process.

Heidi Mann trudged from school to school last week, toting her 4-month-old twins, as she investigated possibilities for her oldest child, 5-year-old Ariah, for next fall. Ariah has been attending preschool five hours a day, and needs at least that much time in kindergarten to build a strong bond with her teacher and learn her academics, Ms. Mann said.

“Having full-day kindergarten is very, very essential,” she said. “I would not enroll her in any school that couldn’t give her that.”

Nancy McKernon, the president of Greenwood’s PTA, said she and Mr. Radford attended many “kindergarten fairs” and told parents of their plan to begin pay-for-K. “People didn’t flinch when we said we’d be charging for full-day kindergarten,” she said. “The reaction was very positive.”

A number of schools in other districts around the Puget Sound and in Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Massachusetts, and Oregon have been using the pay-for-K model for some time.

Creating Inequities?

But some policymakers believe the practice raises troubling equity questions, even though most such schools do not charge families for the all-day programs if their children qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

“There are always going to be some who can pay and others who can’t,” said Vincent L. Ferrandino, the executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, based in Alexandria, Va. “What about those families just above the cutoff? Shifting the burden to parents inevitably becomes an inequitable kind of structure for payment.”

Mr. Ferrandino and others also worry that parent- financed kindergarten allows legislatures to avoid spending money on programs that educators believe are important enough to be state-mandated and state- funded.

Nationwide, 25 states and the District of Columbia specifically pay for full-day kindergarten, according to a recent Education Week survey. (“Access to Early-Childhood Programs,” a table from Quality Counts 2002: Building Blocks for Success, January, 2002.)

“The schools need to lobby hard with their state legislatures and state departments of education to fund these programs, if they believe full-day programs are of value,” Mr. Ferrandino said. “We believe that is the case. And that case needs to be made so it becomes part of the regular program for all kids.”

Joanne Testa-Cross couldn’t agree more that full-day kindergarten should be required and funded by the state of Washington. That is why she and dozens of parents did “a lot of soul-searching” before launching Seattle’s first pay-for-K in 1997-98.

“My feeling is that we shouldn’t have to do this,” said Ms. Testa-Cross, the principal of John Hay Elementary School, which now has three full-day, parent-financed programs and will offer a fourth next year. “With the emphasis on early literacy these days, it should be required and the legislature should fund it. But we decided that we just couldn’t wait for that.”

Brian Barker, the executive director of the Association of Washington School Principals, an Olympia-based group that represents 1,100 principals, said that he believes it is best not to resort to pay-for-K programs, but hopes that their popularity will demonstrate the need for them and compel lawmakers to pay for them.

‘A Buyer’s Market’

The state of Washington pays for half-day kindergarten programs, and the 47,000-student Seattle district spends $1.9 million of its $435 million annual budget to complement state funding so that each of the district’s 67 elementary schools can offer one full-day kindergarten program, said district spokeswoman Lynn Steinberg.

But some schools believe they need to offer more than that, and not all have the resources to do so.

Because of Seattle’s weighted student funding formula, education money follows students to their schools, delivering more aid to schools with high percentages of students in poverty and English- language learners, Ms. Steinberg said. Most of those schools, located in economically modest neighborhoods south of Seattle’s Ship Canal, a local landmark, have used the funds to implement full-day kindergarten, she said.

But in the middle- and upper-middle-class neighborhoods north of the canal, schools do not have those additional dollars. Those schools find themselves with less of a guaranteed student base because of the end of voluntary busing in 1999, the ensuing open-enrollment system, and the increasing exodus of students to private schools. As a result, school leaders believe they must turn to parents—and their pocketbooks—to meet the demand for full-day kindergarten classes.

Ed James, the principal of West Woodland Elementary School, which has had pay-for-K since 1998, said the program, which allows him to offer three full-day kindergarten classes with only 19 or 20 children in each, is beginning to draw families to his school.

“For the first time in years, we had a waiting list for kindergarten, and we have four or five children who have come back to us from private schools,” Mr. James said.

He and other principals have taken additional steps as well to make their schools more desirable.

At Greenwood Elementary, for instance, Mr. Radford is implementing a new “experiential” curriculum and adding a preschool program. Mr. James has begun a Hands-On Science program, a new math program and the practice of “looping” children, or keeping them with the same teacher more than one year. He also used discretionary funds to lower class size in 1st and 2nd grades.

“We need to be able to market ourselves,” Mr. James said. “Hey, in Seattle, schools are a buyer’s market, and they should be.”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 2002 edition of Education Week as Seattle Parents Paying for All-Day Kindergarten


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