Even with a major push in Colorado and the nation to capitalize on the early childhood years so that kids are reading well by third grade, kindergarten still gets short shrift.
Most states, including Colorado, don’t require school districts to offer full-day kindergarten and don’t fully fund the program even when it’s offered. In addition, about half of states, including Colorado, allow full-day kindergarten to be fewer hours per day than other elementary grades.
These are a few of the findings in a new report from the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, which tracks research and advises state education policymakers.
Still, there are signs of change, albeit very gradual. The report found that 14 states now mandate that districts offer full-day kindergarten, up from 11 in 2013.
Although there is no such requirement in Colorado, demand for full-day kindergarten is relatively high, with about three-quarters of the state’s kindergartners attending full-day programs last year, according to the state education department.
Bruce Atchison, director of early learning for Education Commission of the States, said he expects the number of states mandating full-day kindergarten to continue to tick up, mirroring the trend that ratcheted up state-funded preschool programs over the last several years.
“As the economy recovers and legislators and governors are prioritizing their agendas, we’ll see more and more full-day kindergarten programs being offered,” he said.
Atchison believes efforts to improve third-grade reading proficiency will be a key driver. To date, such efforts have been reactive, with state laws, including Colorado’s READ Act, focusing on mitigating the problem after it’s been identified. Full-day kindergarten represents part of a more proactive approach, he said.
Some states, such as West Virginia, require districts to exclusively offer full-day kindergarten, while others, such as Oklahoma, require districts to offer it but also allow families to choose half-day kindergarten, according to the report.
The hurdle that many states face in offering expansive full-day kindergarten programs is funding. Historically, the half-day class required half the spending of other grades. But as full-day options were phased in, funding didn’t always catch up.
In Colorado, for example, state funding for full-day kindergarteners is only 58 percent of what it is for other grades. School districts that offer full-day kindergarten typically cover the gap by using other funding sources or by charging parents tuition.
There have been multiple legislative efforts to ramp up state funding for full-day kindergarten in recent years, including two bills that died during the 2016 legislative session.