Illinois State Rep. Mary Beth Canty and her husband remember struggling to balance full-time jobs and picking up two children — who are currently in sixth and third grade — from their half-day kindergarten program in Arlington Heights District 25.
She also noticed that the then-kindergartners were loaded with homework because there wasn’t enough time to get through the material in the two-and-a-half-hour half-day session.
Now, Arlington Heights plans to start offering full-day kindergarten in the 2024-25 school year. Canty, a first-year lawmaker representing Arlington Heights, thinks that is the right move for all districts in Illinois.
She has introduced a bill that would mandate full-day kindergarten for school districts around the state by the 2027-28 school year. The bill, HB 2396, would also require the state to create a task force to examine full-day kindergarten in 2024.
The bill has already passed the house with bipartisan support and is in the Senate’s education committee where it will go up for a hearing on April 25.
Parents, educators, and advocates want school districts to offer full-day programs because they say teachers would have more time to help children learn foundational skills such as their alphabets, colors, and numbers, working parents would have child care covered, and students would be better prepared to enter elementary school. But some critics have concerns about additional costs, staffing, and space at local schools.
Illinois currently requires school districts to have half-day kindergarten. In 2021-22, over 700 of the state’s 852 school districts reported full-day kindergarten enrollments, but that could include students enrolled in half-day programs who are receiving other services throughout the day, a Chalkbeat analysis of data from the Illinois State Board of Education found. Districts report more full-day programs enrollments than half-day enrollments, according to the analysis.
According to the Education Commission of the States, 17 states and Washington D.C. required full-day kindergarten as of 2020.
In Illinois, Gov. J.B Pritzker earlier this year announced his Smart Start Plan to increase funding for early childhood education and child care in the state for children who are 3 and 4 years old. Canty believes that the state also needs to make sure that all 5-year-olds have access to full-day kindergarten.
Full-day kindergarten benefits students and their families — especially mothers who have left the workforce since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to watch their children, Canty said.
“If we believe in our kids and we want a strong economy, this is how we do it,” said Canty. “We invest in our youngest, we invest in our families, and we make it possible for them to participate meaningfully.”
State mandate could increase full-day kindergarten enrollment
Without mandated full-day kindergarten, education advocates worry that parents will not enroll their children in kindergarten and might be forced to shuffle them around to different family members’ homes while they work.
Erean Mei, a kindergarten teacher at KIPP Academy Chicago Primary, supports the full-day kindergarten bill because she sees it as a way to create equal opportunities for children regardless of their socioeconomic status.
“I think the bill addresses an equity question of children who grow up in a home where parents are able to pick them up from a half-day program versus those who are not able to access kindergarten,” Mei said.
In Illinois, parents are not required to send their children to school until they turn 6. During the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, Illinois saw a drop in the number of students enrolled in kindergarten in 2021 because parents worried about their young children contracting COVID-19 or had trouble managing remote learning and work.
A study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that students in full-day programs had significant gains in reading and math and social and emotional skills. Teachers were also able to get through more curriculum with students.
Some districts without full-day kindergarten are already adding it
Until COVID shuttered schools in 2020, River Forest School District 90 leaders didn’t see the added benefits of a full-day kindergarten when they discussed it in 2011 and 2015.
Then the pandemic hit and Superintendent Alison Hawley said she saw a gap in resources between students from low-income families and those in affluent families.
“We have more dual-income earners in our district than we did previously and family needs are changing,” said Hawley. “We’re changing standards for our kindergarten students. The academic standards are designed for a full year and we have a half-day program.”
River Forest’s Board of Education decided in February to expand its kindergarten program after getting input from families, educators, and community members. To prepare for the full-day program, the 1,300-student district will need to hire a few more teachers — especially if enrollment increases, according to Hawley.
River Forest is one of several Illinois districts switching to a full-day program this fall. While a majority of districts in the state report having full-day kindergarten, about 100 do not offer a full-day program. Some are slowly making the transition to full-day kindergarten without a law in place.
Downers Grove Grade School District 58 is another school district that decided in February to switch to free, full-day kindergarten for the 2023-24 school year.
Since 2015, Downers Grove has offered families free half-day kindergarten in the morning and a tuition-based full-day program in the afternoon. Next year, the district will offer a free full-day program for 5-year-olds, after receiving more funding through local tax revenue to work on updating older buildings in the district.
According to Downers Grove Superintendent Kevin Russell, the district had considered full-day programming for nearly two decades, but it was impossible without additional funding. Both River Forest and Downers Grove serve wealthier communities.
Russell worries that without additional funding to increase space and staffing, less affluent districts will have a hard time shifting to the full-day program mandated in Canty’s bill.
“When we’re talking about full-day kindergarten in a historic teacher shortage with a lack of a funding mechanism for more staff and facilities, this is a really daunting challenge for school districts,” said Russell. “Many of my colleagues have expressed that they don’t know how they’re going to make this happen.”
Opponents say funding and space are barriers
Emily Warnecke, director of public relations and deputy director of governmental relations for the Illinois Association of School Board Administrators, said her organization supports the idea of full-day kindergarten but believes more work needs to be done first.
“We know that there are districts that want to be able to do this,” said Warnecke, “but they just do not have the space and they would need the money to fund the construction to add those spaces.”
Before the state mandates full-day programs, Warnecke believes it should create a task force to study which districts have full-day kindergarten and the barriers districts that don’t face.
Canty said she understands concerns about funding, but hopes that extending the time to shift to full-day programs to the 2027-28 school year will make the transition smoother for districts.
Under the current version of the bill, districts can waive creating a full-day program for two years after the initial date if the district is funding below 70% according to the state’s evidence-based funding formula, is ranked in the top 25% of needing more capital funding, or meets a criteria set by the State Board of Education based on the task force’s recommendations.
Samantha Smylie is the state education reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago, covering school districts across the state, legislation, special education, and the state board of education. Contact Samantha at email@example.com.