GUEST COLUMN: Funding full-day kindergarten is an issue of equity

When you think of kindergarten, you probably remember snack, meeting new friends, and playing with toys and blocks. You might have taken a nap every day and made lots of arts and crafts.  Today’s full day kindergarten looks very different. Within a span of a full school day, children will have a literacy block, a writers’ workshop, and math lessons. Many schools also offer classes in art, music, science, and PE. Students who start school in August not knowing letters will leave in May reading and writing at least 40 sight words.  They will learn to independently write a sentence and then a story, count to 100, and read books correctly and quickly.

By contrast, a typical half-day kindergarten class, which is commonly a little less than three hours, forces teachers to shorten lessons or limit instruction of certain subjects to every other day. Full-day kindergarten provides students with a full day of instruction, allowing teachers to dig deeper into subject matter, and build a daily routine that includes teaching every subject every day. In today’s full-day kindergarten, there are students like Hannah, who worked daily to be a kind friend to others, but also learned to count to one hundred by 10s and by ones. Rosa, who started the year crying because she missed her mother, one day said brightly, “I miss my Mommy, but I’m not crying anymore. I’m growing my brain with my friends!”

As kindergarten teachers, we know that full-day kindergarten gives children the time to practice and grow into the foundational academic and social skills they are learning. Yet Colorado has waited to provide funding for full-day kindergarten, while states like West Virginia and Oklahoma have taken this step. In 2008, state legislators finally sought to increase the per-pupil funding gradually until it reached a full 100 percent. When this increase was halted during the economic downturn, many districts throughout the state used a range of options to provide full-day kindergarten to families, from charging full cost to families, to family tuition support, to free full-day programming for some schools.  The unintended consequences of this variety of approaches are the disparities in kindergarten classrooms across the state. Full day kindergarten has become an issue of equity and access: not all students have access, which makes this issue unequitable for our children.

According to a district by district analysis by the Colorado Children’s Campaign 18 out of the 35 largest school districts in our state charge families tuition for a full-day programming.  We know from our work that scarcity of resources is a fact for many families. The notion of paying for private kindergarten, a tutor, or even spending extra time at home can be exceptionally challenging for working families. For many of them, paying upwards of $500 per month for a child to attend kindergarten is simply not an option.

There is good news: Governor Polis has made this issue a priority. In his budget proposal, he has asked for kindergarten to be funded in the same manner as grades 1-12.  The increased funding will free resources that districts can use to address other pressing student needs such as tutoring, early childhood interventions, and increasing pay for teachers and support personnel.  Districts choosing to fund full-day kindergarten will be able to offer roughly 30,000 families the chance to stop paying tuition, thus helping to improve access to learning in all academic areas. Students get more time with their teachers, while families get more money to spend to best meet their needs.

By funding full-day kindergarten statewide, we will ensure that in Colorado we do not base access to education on the family’s zip code.  We will ensure increased academic performance for all our children, and especially for families whose students have been historically disadvantaged, so that children like Hannah and Rosa can continue to grow, learn, and be successful.

Jamita Horton teaches kindergarten at Rocky Mountain Prep – Southwest in Denver. Marsia Ronyak teaches kindergarten at Independence Elementary in Aurora and is a National Board Certified teacher.  Jamita and Marsia are Teach Plus Colorado Teaching Policy Fellowship alumni.