An under-examined aspect of President Obama’s new early childhood education plan is his proposal to encourage states to create more full-day kindergarten seats – though only after states are able to guarantee access to pre-K for all 4-year olds from low and moderate-income families.
At Early Ed Watch, we believe full-day kindergarten should be more than just a second-fiddle issue. High-quality kindergarten is key to retaining and building upon the advances made in preschool, and even more crucial for those children who were not enrolled in a quality pre-K program. Currently, most states do not require school districts to provide full-day kindergarten. Moreover, states do not necessarily fund kindergarten at the same levels as grades 1-12, providing little incentive for districts to offer a full-day program. Some districts manage to do so by covering the cost on their own, or by charging families for the additional half day. So while the president stated that only about six out of 10 kindergartners have access to a full day of learning, there is no way to know how many of those children’s parents are paying for half that day. Even fewer children likely have access to a full, free day of learning.
The administration should consider multiple pathways to expanding access to full-day kindergarten. If there are additional rounds of the Race to the Top state or district-level competitions, the Department of Education could make providing full-day kindergarten – and funding it at the same level as first grade – a priority of the competition; the same could be required if there are additional rounds of the Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge. Under the School Improvement Grant program, the Department could more explicitly recommend full-day kindergarten as a strategy for turning around low-performing elementary schools.
Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) provides funds to local school districts to improve the education of disadvantaged students from birth through 12th grade. While there is little chance Congress will reauthorize ESEA, also known as No Child Left Behind, this year, Title I is another place where full-day, equally funded kindergarten could be encouraged or required.
There are many good reasons for states to require school districts to provide full-day kindergarten at no cost to parents. Under the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Mathematics, kindergartners face new, higher expectations. Children enrolled in half-day programs already have less instructional time, less time for exploration and fewer opportunities for play. Teachers of half-day kindergarten programs may feel additional pressure to narrow the curriculum even further to allow more time to meet the demands of the new standards.
The Children’s Defense Fund has also pointed to the benefits of full-day kindergarten, citing research that suggests children enrolled in full-day programs have better educational outcomes than those in half-day programs. Children in full-day kindergarten have higher academic achievement, better school attendance and lower rates of repeating a school grade.
Full-day kindergarten done right, though, is going to cost more than kindergarten currently does in many states; in order to ensure quality, it should be funded at the same rate as the other grade levels. Incentives from the federal government to encourage states to make this investment would go a long way. But we would like to see full-day kindergarten become a deeper priority, with the administration including it in appropriate Department of Education grant programs, as well as in the Obama Administration’s proposals for ESEA reauthorization.