Wealth, poverty and state all-day kindergarten

The News TribuneSeptember 15, 2013 

Shariel Cruz and Hector Perez-Trujllo worked with a paraeducator in February during all-day kindergarten at Evergreen Elementary School in Spanaway.

DEAN J. KOEPFLER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Thousands of Washington’s youngest schoolchildren are seeing an early payoff from last year’s McCleary decision: all-day kindergarten in more of the state’s poorest schools.

A year ago, only 22 percent of all kindergartners had the option of a full day of instruction and play at no additional cost. (At many schools, families can buy into the all-day option.)

By pumping another $50 million into the program, the 2013 Legislature brought that up to 44 percent, doubling kindergarten hours in hundreds of additional schools across the state. Some districts – such as Tacoma – were already offering a full day to all families; they’ll get to shift local money to other places.

The expansion is a step toward meeting the Washington Supreme Court’s mandates for full state funding of basic education. The Legislature itself defined all-day kindergarten as part of basic education years before the McCleary decision. It must now make good on its own logic, though it doesn’t plan to offer the option to the state’s most affluent schools for another three years.

All-day kindergarten is a good thing, though research suggests its chief beneficiaries may be students disadvantaged by poverty, difficulty with English, or homes where books and literacy are in short supply. In many cases, children with parents who are engaged and enthusiastic about learning will do at least as well spending those additional hours at home.

The state’s approach to all-day kindergarten comes with complications.

More hours require more classroom space – more than some school districts have. The Puyallup School District, for example, is probably the most overcrowded system in the entire state; despite rapid enrollment growth, its voters have repeatedly refused to approve school construction bonds.

It was able to create all-day programs at Firgrove, Spinning and Stewart elementary schools this year – but offering the option at each of its 21 elementaries could be a monumental problem, given the lack of space.

The University Place School District illustrates another problem: Its low-income students are being shut out because the state allocates the money on a school-by-school basis rather than letting the funding follow the students.

The inequity is most dramatic at University Place Primary, where 49 percent of children are eligible for subsidized lunches, the standard proxy for poverty. Because 50 percent must be eligible before a school is eligible for all-day funding, all of University Place Primary’s poorer kids are getting shortchanged.

Meanwhile, families with much higher incomes in other districts have children in schools whose demographics qualify them for the funding. In other words, many of the children who need it least are getting it – while many of those who need it most, aren’t.

This nasty wrinkle will get ironed out when – hopefully – the funding reaches all schools in 2017. Finding classrooms for those longer days in such cramped districts at Puyallup will be a much taller order.

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