Full-day kindergarten should be universal

Massachusetts has seen a dramatic increase in full-day kindergarten over the past decade and is poised for even more growth. With 83 percent of children in public school kindergarten now attending full-day programs, up from 29 percent in fiscal year 2000, the time has come for Massachusetts to make access to full-day kindergarten universal. Kindergarten is the critical bridge between early education and the primary grades, and research shows that children in high-quality, developmentally appropriate full-day programs benefit both academically and socially.

Kindergarten is voluntary in Massachusetts, but state law requires districts to offer tuition-free, half-day kindergarten. Individual communities decide whether to have full-day programs and whether to charge parents for the additional half day. Of the state’s 306 school districts that include elementary grades, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (ESE) reports that 283 provide at least one full-day kindergarten classroom. Tuition-free, district-wide full-day programs are provided in 201 districts, including many — such as Boston and 23 of the 24 Gateway Cities – that serve some of the state’s lowest-income families. Of the 77 districts that charge tuition, fees ranged from $1,075 a year to more than $4,000 in 2010-11.

As striking and as encouraging as the growth of full-day kindergarten is in Massachusetts, these numbers highlight substantial issues of equity. One community might not offer enough full-day kindergarten classrooms to meet demand, while a neighboring community has universal full-day programs. Parents in one community may pay for a full-day program, while a neighboring community provides it tuition-free or charges lower fees.

Across Massachusetts, a number of communities without full-day programs are planning to add them.  Communities with small programs or pilots have plans to expand. Others are moving to end fees and make their programs tuition-free and universal.

Granby, the lone community in Western Massachusetts without full-day kindergarten, will introduce a fee-based full-day option in September 2012. So will Rockland and Easton. Melrose, Framingham, and Uxbridge currently offer half-day kindergarten and a fee-based full-day option; come September they all plan to introduce district-wide, tuition-free full-day kindergarten. Haverhill plans to expand its full-day kindergarten offerings and to cap tuition at $2,000, compared to $4,100 currently. Shrewsbury plans to expand its full-day kindergarten offerings and will raise tuition $400 to $3,200.

Districts cite money and space constraints as barriers to providing full-day kindergarten. The bulk of the financing of full-day kindergarten comes from Chapter 70 state education aid, local education funds, and, in some communities, parent fees. State-funded grants that support the expansion and quality of full-day kindergarten cover an estimated 11 percent of the cost of full-day programs. Finding room for full-day kindergarten can also be challenging. In Rockland, the opening of a new middle school frees up the space needed to introduce full-day kindergarten. Likewise, the opening of a new high school enables Uxbridge to expand its full-day program.

The fiscal year 2013 budget that Gov. Deval Patrick proposed in January included $25.95 million for full-day kindergarten grants, up from $22.95 million in the current fiscal year. The FY13 budget recently approved by the House of Representatives allocates $24.95 million for the grants.

In his introduction to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s annual report to the Legislature on full-day kindergarten, Commissioner Mitchell Chester calls full-day kindergarten “a key component of an early care and education system from birth to third grade” whose benefits “contribute to cost savings and improve educational outcomes, if the elements of quality are in place.”

Research finds that children in full-day kindergarten spend 30 percent more time on reading and literacy instruction and 46 percent more time on mathematics than children in half-day programs.  Not only do they exhibit greater gains in reading and math, but they also demonstrate more independent learning, classroom involvement, productivity in work with peers, and reflectiveness than half-day kindergartners. As anyone who has raised or worked with young children knows, transitions from one activity to the next can be time-consuming and stressful. The extra hours in full-day classrooms reduce the ratio of transition time to activities.

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“Beyond cognitive skills related to reading and math, FDK [full-day kindergarten] also contributes to children’s development of other essential learning skills that support social competence and creative problem-solving,” the Foundation for Child Development notes in its 2010 brief “PreK-3rd: Putting Full-Day Kindergarten in the Middle.” “Full-day programs allow teachers more time for both formal and informal instruction, as well as more flexibility to modify the curriculum to meet students’ needs and interests. FDK provides more time for children to play and learn experientially, encouraging not only their cognitive development, but also their physical and social-emotional development.”

The Children’s Defense Fund, in a recent report, finds only 10 states require school districts to provide publicly funded full-day kindergarten programs. Massachusetts should strive to join this group. As Amy O’Leary, director of our Early Education for All Campaign, noted in a recent story in the Telegram & Gazette, “Tuition is the next big frontier to tackle with full-day kindergarten, along with ensuring that it is a quality program.”

Irene Sege is director of communications for Strategies for Children and its Early Education for All Campaign. She blogs at Eye on Early Education .