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Funding Woes Put Kindergarten at Risk

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On again, off again -- that is the best way to describe funding for full-day kindergarten. Unfortunately, in these tight budget times, an increasing number of districts appear to be considering the "off again" option.

Many likely think that kindergarten is fully funded through the K-12 public education system. But in fact it is not. The majority of states only require that districts offer half-day kindergarten, according to a 2010 report by early education expert Kristie Kaurez at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In the school districts that do offer full day, there is no guarantee that it's free. In many communities, parents must pay -- usually via a sliding fee scale based on their income levels -- if they want their children to be able to stay through the end of the school day.

This month, states and local school districts are deeply emerged in budget decisions for next school year. With stimulus funds running out and with no money to fill the gaps left behind, reverting to half-day kindergarten often emerges as a way to save money. School districts in Arizona, Texas and Pennsylvania, to name a few, are now considering doing just that.

Even as they put full-day kindergarten on the chopping block, district leaders readily acknowledge the research that says children who attend full-day K learn more and have better learning outcomes, especially disadvantaged children. Experts in early education see full-day K as an important piece of preparing children to be able to read by the end of third grade (an important predictor of whether they will graduate from high school). And studies have found higher academic achievement levels in math and reading by children who attended full-day K when compared with children who did not.

A full day also allows teachers to make more time for child-centered play and hands-on activities, two important approaches to learning that many parents worry are missing in today's kindergartens.

The good news is that full-day kindergarten has been salvaged in many recent cases, often by parent advocacy. Parents of soon-to-be kindergarteners are attending school board meetings - or hosting rallies -- in droves to express their consternation about the possibility kindergarten cuts. When this happens, school districts generally find ways to stave off cuts or even to expand free full-day kindergarten offerings.

Earlier this year, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett proposed a budget that reduced the state's spending on K-12 education by more than $1 billion partly by cutting the state's Accountability Block Grants, which districts use to pay for full-day K. Several school districts across the state adopted local budgets that cut their kindergarten budgets, reverting to half-day programs.

Even Philadelphia, with more than 10,000 kindergartners and a high population of at-risk children, passed a budget that scaled back kindergarten to a half-day program.

But as a sign of the importance of the full-day program -- and after hearing from unhappy parents -- Philly's superintendent Arlene Ackerman found ways to continue to fund it. In early June, Ackerman announced the restoration of full-day K and explained that money from the federal Title I program, which is designed to help disadvantaged children, would be redirected to fund the full day. (To get into the policy weeds for a moment: It turns out that the governor's budget opened the door for Title I money to be used this way because Title I funds are not allowed to supplant funds for education programs covered by state dollars. When the state withdrew its funding of the Accountability Block Grants, the state effectively withdrew its support of full-day K, which meant that Title I dollars were permitted to fill the hole. Of course the question now looms: Which Title I-funded programs lost money at the expense of this one?)

Another example comes from Arizona, where last year the state legislature voted to cut full-day K funding to save $218.2 million. Without help from the state, many school districts had to rescind their full-day programs. But again, some districts found ways to pay for it on their own. Additional school districts are planning to bring it back for the 2011-2012 school year.

Then there's the confusing news out of Indiana, where Governor Mitch Daniels proposed a budget plan to expand full-day kindergarten. Many families initially cheered when the Indiana General Assembly passed his proposal. In a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, Governor Daniels explained that part of the new education funding "will be used to complete the job we started of making full-day kindergarten available to every 5-year-old."

The new funding, however, was directed to the state's full-day K grant program, which is not funded to cover all children and which has a per-pupil funding formula that only covers half of a day. Local school district leaders were the ones who had to clear up the confusion for families. "[In Indiana], we still fund kindergartners as half children, not as full children," says Mary Louise Bewley, director of school and community relations for Indianapolis Public Schools. The state is not alone: 16 states fund kindergartners at half the amount of first graders.

It's time to get serious about fixing these disparities so that funding formulas to provide the equivalent per-pupil funding for kindergarten and first grade. As noted above, research shows that full-day kindergarten plays a key role in getting children on a trajectory -- as early as possible -- for success in school and life.

So I applaud states and school districts that are maintaining or enhancing their commitment to full-day K. And I challenge those states and school districts that have yet to make the investment to change their tune. Even in a difficult financial situation, we can't afford to slide backwards when it comes to providing a strong early education for young children.