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Idaho legislators could fund full-day kindergarten. Here’s why experts say it’s important

Education

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BOISE (Idaho Statesman) — Idaho legislators this year plan to push to fund optional full-day kindergarten, a proposal experts say would help improve Idaho’s reading outcomes as children enter first grade.

Lawmakers said not only will funding full-day kindergarten give more kids that extra academic time, but will also alleviate some of the burden that falls on property taxes. Several legislators are working on different versions of bills to fund full-day kindergarten, but they agreed this is the year they expect to get something through.

“All the data shows the same thing, that we need to do something here,” Sen. Carl Crabtree, a Grangeville Republican on the Senate Education Committee, told the Idaho Statesman. “We don’t want to circumvent the parents’ interests and responsibility here. We want to help them and help their kids get more prepared for first grade.”

The proposal has gained momentum in recent years as Idaho has been working to improve early childhood literacy, a key priority for Gov. Brad Little. During his State of the State address Monday, Little didn’t directly mention kindergarten. Instead, he proposed putting $47 million in ongoing funds toward literacy programs, which could include full-day kindergarten.

“Literacy has been my top priority because it just makes sense,” he said. “Our investments in education later on will have more impact if we can work with families to get more students reading proficiently early on.”

FULL-DAY KINDERGARTEN IMPROVES READING OUTCOMES, EXPERTS SAY

The state currently funds half-day kindergarten, which is optional, but many school districts across Idaho use a mix of resources to pay for full-day kindergarten programs. Some school districts charge families an additional cost each month to enroll in a full-day option. Others use funds from supplemental levies or other local or state funds.

Legislators and literacy experts said full-day kindergarten improves students’ proficiency in reading and writing and helps make sure kids are ready for first grade.

In fall of 2021, data from the Idaho Reading Indicator (IRI) showed just over 40% of kindergarten students and 46% of first grade students in Idaho started the year reading at grade level. Data from the spring 2021 IRI showed about 61.3% of children in kindergarten and about 60% of those in first grade were meeting that benchmark.

In Washington, about 52% of kids entered kindergarten ready in the six areas of development and learning the state measures, according to data from the 2019-2020 school year. Those areas include literacy, language and social emotional learning.

“We know that readiness and early intervention make all the difference in a child’s ability to read on grade level,” said Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, a Boise Democrat and retired teacher.

A recent study that analyzed data from the IRI in recent years found full-day kindergarten helped close literacy gaps among students.

Between fall 2020 and spring 2021, students enrolled in full-day kindergarten “improved their IRI scores and outpaced partial-day kindergarten students,” according to the study published by Public Impact, an education firm, and Bluum, an Idaho education nonprofit. Students in full-day kindergarten learned more throughout the year than their peers in half-day programs, the study said.

The benefits of full-day kindergarten were even more significant among Hispanic children, English language learners and children in low-income families, according to the study. But researchers also noted it was important to look at best practices and make sure teachers across Idaho are providing instruction that works, from kindergarten through third grade. The study said outcomes of full-day kindergarten varied widely across districts.

“Full-day kindergarten must come alongside continuing efforts to improve the education students receive in these early grades,” the study said.

TEACHERS NEED TIME TO WORK WITH KIDS, EDUCATOR SAYS

Cristianne Lane, director of professional development with the Lee Pesky Learning Center, said it’s important teachers have the necessary training to provide adequate instruction.

“You certainly don’t want to get into a situation where you’re funding full day, but you don’t have quality instruction,” she told the Statesman. “So as long as the teachers have the training in evidenced-based reading practices, I think it will be a very effective model.”

With a full-day option, she said teachers would have more time to focus on reading and writing instruction, as well as building on kids’ social emotional skills. There often isn’t enough time in a half-day session to put time into vocabulary, comprehension and writing, for example.

“The problem is in a half day, you’ve got to make a lot of choices,” she said.

Peer culture and support is also important for kids to have at a young age so that they learn to interact with their peers in a positive way, said Quinn Perry of the Idaho School Boards Association. Having a full-day kindergarten option could also prevent kids from falling behind their peers.

When kids are behind, it can impact their self-esteem and confidence, further underlying the importance of making sure all children have access to that high quality instruction at an early age, Ward-Engelking said.

LAWMAKERS RAISE EQUITY CONCERNS

With school districts having to cobble together different ways of funding full-day kindergarten, not all students have access to the same opportunities, Ward-Engelking said. A majority of school districts in Idaho offer full-day kindergarten in some form, but those programs vary widely, Perry said.

Lawmakers pointed to issues of equity that come up when only certain students are able to attend full-day kindergarten.

“It’s not uniform, its not thorough and its not free, and that is absolutely specified in our constitution,” Ward-Engelking said. “If were asking parents to pay, that’s not free, and if we’re saying some children get it and some don’t, that’s not uniform and thorough.”

The country is built on a free, public education, said Rep. Colin Nash, a Boise Democrat. When parents are told they have to pay for their kids to get that early childhood literacy instruction, the message that comes across is that reading is for wealthy families, he said.

“Education is the great equalizer and that can’t be true if we’re charging parents for public education,” he said.

WHAT WILL FULL-DAY KINDERGARTEN COST IDAHO?

Lawmakers estimated the effort could cost $40 million to $50 million a year. The cost could depend on the number of students who enroll in the full-day option and specifics of the program.

Rep. Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth, who is crafting a full-day kindergarten bill, said he expects his proposal to cost $45 million to $50 million. He said he wants to make sure kids who fall into the bottom 25% in reading proficiency are able to get the services they need to succeed.

“To get at those kids, we’re going to have to do some things differently,” he told the Statesman. “We’re going to have to be more consistent in really identifying the needs of the bottom 25% and looking at strategies in getting them up to proficiency and keeping them up.”

In addition to full-day kindergarten, Kerby said his bill includes other aspects that would promote additional academic time for those kids.

“We as a legislature need to advocate for those kids,” he said. “We’ve got to pay attention to the kids whose parents aren’t screaming.”

The proposal would require a big investment, he said, and it’s important to make sure it is being used to improve the outcomes for kids.

Lawmakers also put an emphasis on the tax relief that funding full-day kindergarten could provide. It could alleviate the need to pass some levies, which would especially help some of the state’s smaller, rural schools.

The state has plenty of money available to fund full-day kindergarten, legislators said, pointing to Idaho’s surplus currently projected at $1.9 billion.

“It’s not a budget problem. We have a ($1.9 billion) surplus, and if we wanted to fund full-day kindergarten it would probably be about 5% of that, so money is not an issue here,” Nash said. “It’s a matter of political will.”

YBARRA, LITTLE SUPPORT FULL-DAY KINDERGARTEN

Lawmakers said they don’t expect everyone will be on board with the proposal to fund full-day kindergarten, but believe there’s bipartisan support for some kind of funding.

The State Board of Education, Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra and Gov. Brad Little have also all shown support for some kind of funding for full-day kindergarten, as well as teachers, parents, school board trustees and principals.

“It’s hard to find anyone that doesn’t believe that the funding of full-day kindergarten is a good idea,” Perry said.

Although some believe kids should be at home with their parents until they reach a certain age — one of the areas of pushback officials expect to hear — that isn’t an option for many families, Ward-Engelking said.

Legislators emphasized that kindergarten will also remain optional. Education, Ward-Engelking added, is the best “economic asset we have.” “Idaho moves forward when education is well funded and adequate,” she said.

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