In the not too distant past, kindergarten was a place where children learned to color, share and play. But a higher regard for kindergarten is emerging, including a move toward all-day sessions in some states, as a growing body of research underscores the importance of learning in the earliest years.
The percentage of kindergartners attending full-day programs has grown from about 10 percent in the 1970s to about 76 percent in 2012, with a steep increase between 2002 and 2006, according to Child Trends, a nonprofit research center. While some programs took a hit during the recession, several states have taken action recently to expand access to full-day kindergarten. Part-day kindergarten typically last two or three hours, while full-day kindergarten can range from four to seven hours.
Washington lawmakers, for example, added $50 million to spending on full-day kindergarten this school year, making twice as many children eligible to attend full-day classes compared to last year. The state expects to offer full-day kindergarten to all students by 2017-18.
Minnesota last year allocated $134 million to allow all school districts to offer full-day kindergarten, and state officials expect close to 95 percent of students will attend full-day programs starting in September. Currently, just over half of kindergartners in Minnesota public school attend full-day programs.
Indiana has provided funding for universal, voluntary full-day kindergarten since the 2012-13 school year. In Kansas, Republican Gov. Sam Brownback has proposed a five-year $80 million plan to allow all kindergarten students to attend full-day programs.
Other states also have grappled with the issue in recent years. Last year, for example, Nevada enacted legislation to help English-language learners that included money to expand full-day kindergarten. In New Jersey, lawmakers approved legislation to study full-day kindergarten. And Maine's legislature debated a bill that would have required schools to offer full-day kindergarten by 2017-18, but it fell short of the two-thirds majority required for passage.
Advocates say publicly funded full-day kindergarten programs help the youngest students build a strong foundation for the rest of their learning. And while prekindergarten has received significant attention in recent years, including President Barack Obama's proposal for universal preschool, some argue that full-day kindergarten is also vital. (The president's plan would encourage states to expand full-day kindergarten once preschool is available to 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income households.)
“Full-day kindergarten is so important,” said MaryLee Allen, director of child welfare and mental health at the Children's Defense Fund. “There's been research that shows that children who have access to full-day kindergarten are more prepared for school and making that transition to first grade.”
Some research has shown that attendance in full-day (as opposed to part-day) kindergarten is linked to higher levels of early reading skills, although the impact may not last beyond kindergarten. Some studies also show a correlation between full-day kindergarten and improved math skills. Other research, however, suggests the impact of full-day kindergarten compared to part-day is minimal.
Clare McCann, a policy analyst with the New America Foundation, said that the Common Core State Standards, a set of English and math standards for students in kindergarten through 12th grades voluntarily adopted by most of the 50 states, are also driving interest in expanding full-day kindergarten.
“The standards are so rigorous, I think school districts and educators are feeling like it might be difficult to meet those standards if they're not allowed more time with children and more time learning,” McCann said.
The recent emphasis nationwide on early learning in prekindergarten through third grade, including a push to make sure children are reading by the third grade, has also contributed to a demand for full-day kindergarten, experts say.
Policies regarding kindergarten remain a hodgepodge across the country. As of last year, only 15 states and Washington, D.C., require students to attend any kindergarten, according to Emily Workman, a policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States. Some states require school districts to offer kindergarten but may not require students to attend. Thirty-four states require school districts to offer half-day kindergarten and 11 states and the District of Columbia require school districts to offer full-day kindergarten. But six states — Alaska, Idaho, Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York — don't require school districts to offer kindergarten at all, Allen said.
A number of states have seen school districts scale back on full-day kindergarten because of the recession. In Pennsylvania, where student enrollment in full-day kindergarten grew from 35 percent to 68 percent from 2004 to 2011, at least two dozen school districts have shifted from full-day kindergarten to part-day after funding dropped in 2011.
Arizona eliminated all state funding for full-day kindergarten in 2010, after increasing money for the full-day programs in all school districts between 2005 and 2009, according to a report by the Foundation for Child Development.
To pay for full-day kindergarten, school districts can raise taxes, charge parents tuition or use temporary funds, such as grants. But advocates of full-day kindergarten say none of the options is ideal because they may restrict the number of children who can attend full-day programs.
Charging tuition for full-day kindergarten raises questions of unequal access, according to Kristie Kauerz, an expert in early education policy at the University of Washington. She noted in a Foundation for Child Development report, which she authored, that Ohio's Supreme Court ruled that schools may not charge parents for full-day kindergarten, while Oregon's attorney general has said school districts do not have the authority to collect tuition for full-day kindergarten.
In Minnesota, Charlene Briner, chief of staff for the state Department of Education, said Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius pushed for the expansion of full-day kindergarten out of a concern that every family should have access to it, regardless of zip code or socioeconomic background. Some school districts in Minnesota were charging families tuition of $300 to $1,200 a year for full-day kindergarten.
“Being able to go to an all-day program because your family can afford it wasn't consistent with the view that an equitable opportunity should be had by all children,” Briner said.