Utah lawmakers expected to debate full-day kindergarten funding
OGDEN — Ask Amy Meunier, a kindergarten teacher at Heritage Elementary School in Ogden, whether full-day kindergarten outweighs the benefits of partial-day kindergarten and there’s no hesitation.
“It’s super worth it,” she said.
She has previously taught partial-day classes but now teaches a full-day class at Heritage and says the extra time allows her to cover more ground with the students and give them one-on-one attention. Partial-day kindergarten — the norm in most of Utah — left her scrambling to get to all the material she wanted to cover. “It is so hard to fit everything into a day,” she said.
School vouchers are no doubt a hot topic, getting plenty of attention in the wake of passage of House Bill 215. That measure, signed into law last Saturday by Gov. Spencer Cox, boosts teacher pay and, to the chagrin of critics, creates a voucher program allowing parents to tap into public funds to cover the cost of private schooling for their kids.
But it’s not the only education issue expected to get debate during the 2023 state legislative session. The fight for state money to fund full-day kindergarten across the state — Utah lags far behind the nation as a whole — has been a standing issue and will likely emerge during the session, like last year. Whether the issue gains traction among lawmakers remains to be seen, but its many proponents say it’s about time lawmakers allocate more funding for broader expansion of full-day kindergarten, or FDK.
“I think the odds are good that some funding will be directed toward expanding optional FDK,” said Anna Thomas, senior policy analyst for Voices for Utah Children, a nonprofit advocacy group for kids that has pushed for more money to expand kindergarten offerings. The Utah State Board of Education, she said, estimates $51.4 million per year is needed to allow for expansion of full-day kindergarten to all Utah schools.
Utah Rep. Robert Spendlove, a Sandy Republican, is planning legislation, he said, but as of Tuesday afternoon he hadn’t yet put forward a specific proposal. Whatever the case, educators seem to be on board, with reps from the Ogden, Weber and Davis school districts, at least, saying they favor full-day kindergarten and the idea of expanding it.
“Love it. Very, very, very supportive,” said Dave Hales, an assistant superintendent in the Weber School District who oversees elementary education.
Lawmakers in 2021 allocated $12.2 million for full-day kindergarten, but it only covers a portion of the cost of expanding such classes and, because of how the law is written, the money isn’t available to every district. In fact, as of the 2021-2022 school year, just 34% of Utah kindergarteners had FDK access compared to 82% of kindergartners nationwide, according to stats compiled by Utah Full Day Kindergarten Now. That’s a coalition of many groups, including Voices for Utah Children, clamoring for more FDK funding.
The Ogden School District is an outlier, with 88.2% of its kindergarteners in full-day classes as of 2021-2022. In the Weber School District, 30% of kids had FDK access last year while in the Davis School District that figure was zero, though offerings were added for 2022-2023 with more expected in 2023-2024.
Ogden School District spokesperson Jer Bates said the Ogden system is different from others in the state in that it has a higher percentage of kids entering kindergarten below the average literacy level for their age. That has spurred district officials to seek funding from the feds and elsewhere to bolster FDK offerings to address the gap.
“For several years, the district has recognized both full-day kindergarten and preschool as opportunities to help our students reach first grade on a higher trajectory for literacy achievement. In 2019, the district began strategically scheduling more full-day kindergarten classes,” Bates said, with expanded preschool offerings introduced in the 2021-2022 school year.
At any rate, the lower figures in the Weber and Davis districts shouldn’t be taken as an indicator of lack of interest.
“They key thing is funding,” said Hales, from the Weber School District. That is, without the money, the district has a tough time expanding FDK offerings.
Christopher Williams, the Davis School District spokesperson, echoed that. From no FDK classes last year, the district now offers 29 full-day classes at 12 schools, with more to come if funds are available, according to Utah Full Day Kindergarten Now.
Williams said reps from 35 additional Davis School District schools have indicated they want to add FDK offerings. “They said they would like it if it’s available. Of course, it would depend on funding,” he said.
Also figuring in the equation is space. Since half-day kindergarten has been the norm in Utah, some schools may not have the space to expand to full-day offerings, at least not yet. Kindergarten classrooms, Williams added, typically need to be bigger to accommodate the varied activities offered to kids that age.
Among the points of debate presuming the FDK funding question emerges will be the way funding is disbursed. “I think it’s 50/50 whether it will be done in the efficient, flexible way that schools are hoping for, and which would benefit the most Utah families the soonest,” said Thomas, of Voices for Utah Children.
More specifically, if the state expands the pool of FDK money, she hopes it is allocated based on the state’s weighted pupil unit formula, a per-pupil state funding formula used in allocating education money to school districts. As is, she said, FDK funding from the state is allocated via separate granting processes that must be supplemented with local and federal money.
Beyond the political and funding debates, school reps focus on the benefits of full-day kindergarten.
Williams said that in 2021-2022, 37% of Davis School District kindergarteners tested below benchmark achievement levels for their age. That figure declined to 29% in 2022-2023, he said, thanks to the addition of full-day kindergarten in some classrooms.
Tina Olter, a kindergarten teacher in a full-day class at Heritage Elementary in Ogden, said a full-day regimen helps give students the endurance and stamina they’ll need in first grade. If their parents work, full-day kindergarten also provides kids with a safe, constructive place to be.
More significantly, perhaps, full-day kindergarten helps lay the groundwork for future academic success, allowing for more personalized attention to individual students and focus in areas like science.
“A half a day is not enough to cover all the content,” Olter said.