January 24, 2014

Brownback touts plan to fund all-day kindergarten

Victoria Savich lays out $300 a month to send her son, Kingston, to all-day kindergarten in Overland Park.

Victoria Savich lays out $300 a month to send her son, Kingston, to all-day kindergarten in Overland Park.

The expense strains the family budget. Less money for groceries. Less for utilities. Less for car insurance.

“We live paycheck to paycheck,” Savich said. “It’s a bit of a stretch for us, but we make it work. We feel it’s worth it.”

Many parents agree. So does Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback. The Republican governor proposes spending $80 million — adding $16 million a year for five years — to fully fund all-day kindergarten for nearly 40,000 children statewide.

Brownback called it a strategic investment to ensure children are better positioned to succeed in school. He visited Roesland Elementary School in Roeland Park on Thursday to sell the benefits of all-day kindergarten.

“We need all-day kindergarten,” Brownback said. “We’ve needed to do it for some period of time.”

Gayle Stuber, early childhood coordinator for the Kansas Department of Education, said research shows all-day kindergarten is particularly helpful for kids who would otherwise struggle in school.

“Kindergarten has always been the gateway to education,” she said.

Like 33 other states, Kansas requires school districts to offer at least a half day of kindergarten, according to the Education Commission of the States. Eleven states offer and pay for full-time kindergarten.

Of the 286 Kansas school districts, Wichita and 250 others provide all-day kindergarten out of their budgets.

Twenty districts — including Andover and Maize — charge for full-day kindergarten. Fifteen school districts statewide do not offer all-day kindergarten.

Brownback faces an uphill battle for his election-year proposal.

Budget-conscious lawmakers from his own party question the program’s lasting benefits.

“What are we going to get for this?” asked House Speaker Ray Merrick, a Johnson County Republican.

Merrick set up a legislative committee to study the issue, a move that some lawmakers see as a roadblock to funding all-day kindergarten.

Some conservative lawmakers aren’t interested in funding a program they fear could be used to substitute for day care with little more rigor than an extended lunch hour with arts and music classes.

“Do I think it’s probably beneficial for a child? Probably not,” said Rep. Kasha Kelley, chairwoman of the House Education Committee.

Kelley and other lawmakers point to studies showing that benefits gained from all-day kindergarten quickly wane.

“Is it healthy for a child to be in school all day long at age 5?” said the Arkansas City Republican. “If the gains aren’t kept, what’s the point?”

All-day kindergarten advocates point to research showing that those students — who get three to four hours more of instruction — are higher achievers.

They learn language and math skills faster, are less likely to be held back and adapt more quickly socially.

Savich said all-day kindergarten gives her son extra time to reinforce spelling, math and reading.

“By the end of the day,” she said, “they’ve really gotten a full spectrum of everything.”

Potential benefits

Some experts who studied all-day kindergarten see the benefits as limited.

Jill Cannon, a policy researcher for the RAND Corp. think tank, looked at all-day kindergarten nationally and in the Los Angeles Unified School District. She said research showed a spike in achievement by the end of kindergarten, but that it dissipated by third grade.

Cannon said the studies did not rule out benefits for all-day kindergarten. She acknowledeged that other forms of learning — such as socialization — haven’t been studied as extensively.

In Kansas, Brownback wants to use it to boost fourth-grade reading test scores.

“If you’re doing it because you want test scores to increase then the evidence isn’t supporting that,” Cannon said. “By third grade, you’re not seeing a difference.”

A new study out this month in Washington state questioned the value of all-day kindergarten even as lawmakers there added money for the program.

The study by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy concluded the cost of full-day kindergarten outweighs the benefit because the academic gains aren’t sustained.

The study found that over their lifetimes, full-day kindergarten students would earn on average $833 more than half-day students.

However, researchers said the value of the program depends largely on how quickly test scores waned after all-day kindergarten.

If the test scores don’t fade, a full-day student could expect to earn $16,506 more than half-day kids, the study found.

Demand rising

Brownback’s proposal comes as demand for all-day kindergarten is spiking.

Enrollment in all-day kindergarten in Kansas has increased 350 percent since 2000 to 33,559 students this year. Nearly 90 percent of all Kansas kindergarten students are in the all-day program. Just 30 percent were in 2000.

In Missouri, where just about every school district picks up the cost of all-day kindergarten, 97 percent of kindergarten students attend all day, up from 78 percent in the 2000-01 school year.

Nationally, 77 percent of kids in kindergarten went full time, compared with 37 percent in 1987 and just 8 percent in 1967, according to the Census Bureau.

In the last two years, Washington state spent another $50 million, Indiana added $80 million to its budget and Minnesota decided to fork out $134 million more to pay for all-day kindergarten.

Skeptics question how Kansas could pay for an all-day kindergarten program in era of income tax cuts. The governor says the state has the money.

The most recent projections for the governor’s budget show the state spending down its reserves by about $460 million the next two years. That would leave the state’s kitty nearly depleted by fiscal year 2016. The state would be in a $213 million hole by 2017.

Brownback is counting on new growth to pay for the cost of all-day kindergarten, but Roesland PTA President Kellie Gillespie was skeptical.

“I’m glad he came. I’m glad he talked to our students. I’m glad he met out teachers,” Gillespie said. “I don’t have a lot of faith this is going to happen.”

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