By Beth Hillerns
We want all of our children to be successful in school. As a parent, I want that for my own children. As a teacher, I know the parents and families I work with want that for their children. Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposed budget, along with two bills recently introduced in the State House (HF105 and HF821), would help our state’s students reach that goal by providing funding for all-day, every-day kindergarten.
As committed as parents are to their children, some students don’t enter school with the tools they need to be successful in the classroom. They may not have the exposure to language and literacy that children in homes with highly educated parents have. One thing we can do to counteract their lack of readiness is to provide students with a literacy-rich environment in preschool and kindergarten. And while pre-school programs are important, Minnesota needs to start by fully funding all-day, every-day kindergarten.
Currently, our districts are only reimbursed for a half day of kindergarten. This lack of funding means that districts generally have three options: 1) offer only half-day kindergarten (or full-day, every-other-day kindergarten); 2) offer full-day kindergarten but use part of the general-education fund to pay for it; or 3) offer both full-day and half-time kindergarten and charge for the second half of a full-day program.
All of these are problematic and only serve to perpetuate the achievement gap. Many districts in high-poverty areas choose to offer full-day kindergarten at no charge to parents, but they are reimbursed by the state for only about half of the cost. Imagine what they could do if the state fully funded kindergarten and they could reallocate those funds.
Five years ago when my son was four, we began looking at kindergarten programs and found that the district we lived in would charge us for a full-day program. Yet, even if we were willing to pay for it, there was no guarantee of admittance. All parents who willing to pay the fee were entered into a lottery, making the fee and the lottery barriers to educational opportunity and steeping the system in inequality.
As a working mother, I wanted my child in a high-quality, full-day kindergarten program. To make that happen, I ended up driving him 30 miles away to a district where we didn’t live. The long car ride through traffic to a place without his neighborhood friends was difficult, but I believe the academic and social benefits of the full-day kindergarten program were worth it.
Full-day kindergarten options should be the norm for all students. According to the Children’s Defense Fund, full-day kindergarten has numerous benefits, including better attendance, higher academic achievement, enhanced behavioral and social development, and an easier transition to first grade. Minnesota can and should provide those benefits to its students.
Most of us think of the K-12 experience as beginning at age 5, but the truth is it begins in unequal opportunity without a full-day experience for every child. We need our legislators to take another step towards equal educational opportunity: Fully fund all-day, every-day kindergarten for all students.
Beth Hillerns teaches Title I at East Central Elementary School near Sandstone, Minn. She has taught for the past 10 years in urban, suburban, and rural schools in Texas and Minnesota.