While high-quality preschool tops the agenda for many federal, state, and local officials, kindergarten—widely considered the first year of formal schooling—has received far less attention.
Despite kindergarten’s pivotal role in preparing children for reading and other academics, state laws on what districts must provide still vary widely, resulting in a patchwork of mandatory and voluntary half-day and full-day offerings. Those disparities can leave children less than prepared for the demands of 1st grade, some educators say.
According to the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, just 15 states require students to attend kindergarten. And while most states require districts to offer at least a voluntary half-day program—Alaska, Idaho, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania are the exceptions—that half-day could be just a few hours.
Such laws reflect a disconnect between state policy and the importance of kindergarten, which some researchers are calling the “new 1st grade,” with its increased focus on literacy and accountability for the youngest school children. The Common Core State Standards also treat kindergarten as a full-fledged grade, without reference to the fact that for some children, kindergarten may be fewer than 15 hours per week.
Alexander Holt, a policy analyst at the New America Foundation, is the author ofthat advocates retiring the “half day” and “full day” labels.
“We would not be talking about ‘half day’ or ‘full day’ 2nd grade,” Mr. Holt said. “It shows how much less seriously we take [kindergarten], and we should be asking ourselves why.”
Buffalo, N.Y., offers an example of the tension that can exist between state law and district needs.
Since 1967, the city’s school district has offered preschool to residents, eventually growing the service into a full-day program that also offers transportation, breakfast, and lunch to 4-year-olds. But it was only this year that the district was able to require parents to take a pivotal next step in their children’s education: actually sending all 5-year-olds to the district’s full-day kindergarten programs. To make that a mandate took a change to New York state law, which doesn’t require school attendance until age 6.
“This is a very small window of opportunity we have to reach our 5-year-olds,” said Kathleen A. Fennie, the supervisor of early-childhood curriculum, assessment, and instruction for the 34,000-student Buffalo district, which sought the mandate. “We don’t get that back.”
Utica, N.Y., was also granted permission to make kindergarten attendance mandatory this school year.
Kindergarten first started in the United States in the 1800s as a place for children to develop fine-motor and social skills while beginning to learn the basics of schooling.
Over time, however, the grade has become more academically rigorous,.
From 1998 to 2006, kindergarten teachers reported devoting 25 percent more time to teaching early literacy, increasing it to 7 hours per week, the researchers found.
In 1998, a little less than a third of teachers said that kindergartners should leave the grade knowing how to read. By 2006, that percentage had risen to 65 percent.
The researchers also noted a corresponding drop in other elements of kindergarten, such as social studies, music, art, and physical education.
“The overall effect of these changes for young children is an important open question,” they caution in their report, though they say that academic preparation need not be at odds with developmentally appropriate education for children.
Parents who enroll their children in kindergarten have been choosing full-day programs by a wide margin. Child Trends, a research center based in Bethesda, Md.,and found that 76 percent of kindergarten students nationally were enrolled in full-day programs, compared to 24 percent in half-day programs—an almost complete reversal of the enrollment pattern in 1977, when about 73 percent of children attended only a half day, compared to 27 percent in kindergarten for a full day.
State laws, however, have generally not changed to reflect kindergarten’s importance and popularity among parents. Emily Workman, a policy analyst at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, says that policymakers may still see kindergarten as “play time.”
“There is a huge emphasis right now on preschool, and states are grasping on to that. That’s where the discussion has gone,” Ms. Workman said.
The commission itself is trying to refocus attention on the K-3 years and the quality improvements that are needed to ensure that whatever gains children achieve in a good preschool can be sustained, she said.
“You’re still not going to see promising results if you don’t ensure that what’s going on in those classrooms is of high quality, and those teachers are of high quality,” said Ms. Workman, who wrote a 2012called “Inequalities at the Starting Line.”
States are starting to address this issue, with the new law for Buffalo and Utica being one example. In previous legislative sessions, New York City, Rochester, and Syracuse were also granted permission to mandate kindergarten.
Ms. Fennie, who oversees early-childhood education for Buffalo, said that it’s too early to get an idea of whether attendance has gone up; school started for the year on Sept. 4. However, the district did have to add four additional kindergarten classrooms in order to handle the higher enrollment this year.
“We hope that this is the magic bullet—that our families will see that you need to bring [children] to school every day,” she said. “They need the exposure, and they need to learn how to learn. It’s hard to get their children to school, I understand that. I’m hoping [the mandate] will give them an incentive.”
Other states are also making moves toward bolstering the kindergarten year by providing funding for the program, even if offering a full day is not mandated.
For 2014-15, Minnesota is funding full-day kindergarten for the first time, though districts are only legally required to offer a half day. Prior to this, districts could offer full-day kindergarten but had to use local funds or parent fees to pay for the additional hours. The state is expected to distribute about $134 million to districts for the full-day expansion.
“With all the emphasis on getting students to reading and writing by 3rd grade, [kindergarten] is just huge,” said state Rep. Paul Marquart, a Democrat and the chair of the Minnesota House’s education finance committee.
Free, full-day kindergarten seems to have met a pent-up demand for the Mounds View district, which serves communities in suburban St. Paul.
Dan Hoverman, the superintendent of the 10,500-student district, welcomed about 800 kindergarten students to school this year, fewer than 25 of them attending a half-day program. Before this year, about half of the district’s kindergarten students attended a full-day program, paying $2,430 to do so. The other half attended only a portion of the day.
Finding space for the children has been a logistical challenge, however. Without enough room to house the children in the elementary schools, the district renovated and reopened a school that was being used as administrative space. Mr. Hoverman’s office is now in one of the district’s kindergarten centers.
“There’s an energy and a real synergy that comes when you have kindergarten teachers from more than one school able to work together,” he said. “There are positive intended and unintended consequences.”
Washington state is phasing in a program intended to lead to full state funding for full-day kindergarten by the 2017-18 school year. The state is starting with the lowest-income districts, which means that more affluent districts such as Lake Washington, east of Seattle, are still charging parents.
The 26,000-student Lake Washington offers a free half-day kindergarten, but parents who are looking for a full-day program must pay up $3,500, with reduced rates for families eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Even with the fee, about 70 percent of families opt for a full-day program, said Kelly Pease, the district’s director of intervention programs. Ms. Pease said that the state’s move to pay for full-day kindergarten will be “amazing.”
“It levels the playing field so that every child has access to the same academics, whether the family can pay it or not,” she said.
Space, however, will be a challenge. The district has been growing by 700 to 800 children a year, and in April voters rejected a bond issue that would have paid for school construction. The district wants to build three new elementary buildings and a new middle school.
“We’re going to have to have a pretty broad conversation about what we want to do about capacity,” said schools spokeswoman Kathryn Reith.
In 2013, Oregon lawmakers voted to make kindergarten free and a full day, but did not designate a funding stream for the program. Currently, parents who want a full-day program could pay up to $400 a month to districts for the program. In 2013-14, about 40 percent of the state’s kindergarten students were enrolled in full-day programs, according to the Oregon Department of Education.
Oregon school district officials are watching the legislature closely to see how much money is allotted to the expanded effort, which will go into effect for the 2015-16 school year.
The rural Umatilla district has offered a hybrid program: a full-day kindergarten program only for its most academically needy students. This year’s kindergarten class is slightly smaller than average, at about 90 students. That gives the 1,400-student district the flexibility to try out a full-day kindergarten program for all students, a year ahead of the state mandate.
Umatilla is about 70 percent Hispanic, and 84 percent of its students are eligible for free or reduced-priced lunches, said Superintendent Heidi Sipe. A full-day kindergarten program is essential for her students, she said. The district has added permanent modular classrooms and is using space in a community senior center to provide room for all the children who can enroll.
“We didn’t have anyone who wasn’t supportive” of a full kindergarten day, Ms. Sipe said.
A version of this article appeared in the September 17, 2014 edition of Education Week as Kindergarten: State Policies a Patchwork