The Problem With Kindergarten – Atlantic

When Ojeya Cruz Banks moved to Ohio from New Zealand several years ago, he was overwhelmed with the logistics of taking his life. But Cruz Banks, a Denison University professor and single mother, who is also a neighbor and friend of mine, was relieved to find a house next to a public elementary school. She assumed she would be able to walk to pick up her daughter—a necessary comfort considering she didn’t yet have a car. Unfortunately, when she enrolls her daughter in kindergarten, she gets an unpleasant surprise: The only option available is a half-day program that will drop students off at a daycare center in the suburbs for the afternoon. The District did offer a limited number of full-day slots, but all had been claimed in the previous lottery that spring and came with tuition fees. “I was like, ‘My fees? What? Public schools need money here?’” he told me.

Many parents across the United States, such as Cruz Banks, might assume that free all-day kindergarten is a mandatory part of the country’s public education system. I was one of them, until my youngest had to enter our district’s lottery a few months ago. When he was assigned to the half-day program, I tossed between dread and frustration. This resentment is understandable considering that “K–12” is the common abbreviation for public school. But although kindergartens have been housed in public elementary schools for decades, attendance is not mandatory in most states, and many states adopt different laws and funding formulas for such classes.

The majority of US schoolchildren go to kindergarten, and 79 percent of those kids are enrolled in full-day programs. But this vital education is not guaranteed nationally. Kindergarten policies in the country vary from state to state, district to district, and even within the school system itself. At least 29 states—both red and blue—do not mandate that districts offer full-day kindergarten. And some families may not be able to afford the full day option, even if it is offered. While fees are not the norm, as of 2013, at least 12 states have allowed schools to charge public kindergarten tuition fees, usually a few thousand dollars a year, though it’s unclear what practice is common in those states. Low-income students may qualify for financial aid, but many middle-class families may still struggle to pay, effectively turning kindergarten enrollment into a classroom privilege.

Overall, a sizeable minority of children—including one in five children enrolled in half-day kindergarten, full-day students who are forced to pay school fees, and a small number of children who do not attend at all—are unable to freely access proper education. they get. In such cases, parents have had to scramble to pay tuition fees or seek child care amid a nationwide shortage of uncovered half-day school hours. As is too often the case with young families in America, they were alone, left without the support of society when their children were at their most vulnerable.

The integration of kindergarten into American public schools was gradual. It arrived in the 19th century as a privately funded educational venture. By the start of World War I, the class had become part of all major city public school districts, and by 1965, more than 2 million children in 40 states were enrolled. Most early kindergarten programs only offer half-day coverage, but in recent decades, full-day programs have become more common. Grades received more attention in the early 2000s with the introduction of the No Child Left Behind Acts and the standards-based reform movement, as states scrutinized their standards and learning curricula. Over the years, experts have pushed kindergarten classrooms to include a stronger teaching emphasis, in addition to the games and socialization they already provide, according to Rolf Grafwallner, program director for early childhood education at the Council of Chief State School Officers, a nonprofit. education. Academic scores were revised once again during the Common Core State Standards Initiative. But despite curricular improvements and skyrocketing enrollments, the problems of tuition fees and inadequate half-day programs—perhaps kindergarten’s most basic failings—remain unaddressed.

Today, these classes still occupy a gray area between preschool and elementary school—not guaranteed, required, or fully funded in most states, but significant enough that children’s development will be compromised in their absence. For many students, grades are their introduction to formal schooling. Curricula vary, but they usually cover the building blocks of core subjects such as reading and math, in addition to basic social, emotional, and motor skills. The importance of this education cannot be overstated. At ages 5 and 6, children are at an important stage in brain development. Educators, advocates, researchers and state officials largely agree that full-day programs benefit children, both academically and socially. Studies have shown that children who enroll in full-day offerings make greater progress in literacy than those enrolled in half-day offerings. This advantage is maintained for many years.

Parents whose kids don’t get a full day slot alone fill in the learning gap. Anna Baker, a mother from Marshfield, Massachusetts, tried to work around this for her daughter by setting up play dates and signing her up for piano lessons and academic enrichment classes taught by retired teachers. “It was piecemeal and expensive, and I was frustrated that her peers were getting the extra experience, more art, more gym, all the age-for-socialization that most kids should have,” she told me. Still, Baker felt lucky. Some of her daughter’s friends couldn’t pay for the full day option even if they signed on, and they couldn’t afford to supplement the free half day program with extracurricular activities, as Baker did.

For Rachael Abell, president of the school committee in Beverly, Massachusetts—where, until 2018, a full-day kindergarten cost $4,000 a year—this issue of access is a failure of conscience on her district’s part. “The budget is our moral document; this is what we believe in,” he told me. “Are we saying to our community, ‘If you can afford public education, you can get it, and if you can’t, you can get a half day’?” He hated seeing parents come in to inquire about scholarships, or having to pull their children away because they couldn’t afford any more. So he and the committee reduced the tuition fee gradually, until they eliminated it completely in 2020.

When the government doesn’t guarantee adequate early childhood education, the burden becomes “all internalized into the family,” Anna Thomas, a senior policy analyst at the childhood advocacy group, Voices for Utah Children, told me. “All the stress, all the challenges, all the punishment for not working out—families take it for granted, especially mothers.” This burden is unsustainable for many people. Half of US families have two working parents, and 71 percent of mothers of children under 18 are in the labor force. Perhaps for this reason, policies that would expand the offerings by a full day seem popular with parents. In Utah for example, where only about a third of children have access to full day programs, 68 percent of voters support expanding full day kindergarten, and up to 69 percent would accept a tax increase to facilitate it, according to a Voices for Utah Children survey.

The importance of guaranteeing universally free full-day kindergarten has perhaps never been more obvious. The pandemic exposed the dire consequences of exclusion of families from community care: Parents’ mental health plummeted, children were left behind alarmingly, and mothers left jobs in a staggering number. Kindergarten enrollment fell to levels not seen since the 2000s, and public kindergartens lost 340,000 students from 2019 to 2020—a figure likely due to declining birth rates but which cannot be explained by itself. And the US has no reason to lose; according to a 2020 UNICEF report, America ranks among the lowest developed countries in terms of child welfare, which includes socialization and achievement in math and reading.

Economically, with rising food prices, inflation at a historic high, and soaring gas prices, American families needed help—myself included. I recently learned that my son would be able to attend our school’s full day program because someone else had denied them their place. Knowledge brings relief but also stress. I couldn’t resist the study, play, and socializing that the full day option offered, but I knew that paying nearly $4,000 a year (excluding treatment) meant having less for increased living expenses, medical debt, or an emergency fund. While not a panacea for recent parenting crises or loss of education, creating a free full-day program nationwide will provide much-needed support to families across the country. It’s too late.