Preschool Matters Today

Back to School: Shrinking Kindergarten Days

September 11, 2012


It’s that time of year again when the weather starts to feel crisper and the kids are donning backpacks to head to a new year of school. But what kind of classrooms are they going back to this year? Unfortunately, with budgets stretched thinner and thinner, many schools are forced to make significant cuts. In the earliest grades, which are often seen as not yet “real” school, these are even more apparent. For instance, many states are scaling back on the length of the kindergarten day to lower costs.

As a Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) report shows, most states don’t have a state-level requirement for the provision of kindergarten or they only require a half-day program.  However, it’s clear that states without a statutory requirement for kindergarten are leaving it on the chopping block year after year. Two big culprits with a lot of media coverage are New York and Pennsylvania where several districts cut back on their full-day programs, and even more considered cuts that were eventually avoided.

In New York, media reports that both Poughkeepsie and East Ramapo scaled back full-day kindergarten to a half-day.  Although CDF reports that New York school districts can apply for one-time funding to expand from a half-day to full-day kindergarten program, it’s clear from these district-level cuts that the funding structure is not helping programs sustain full-day kindergarten in the long run. As one article on the New York situation notes: “Even though every regular public school system in New York has at least a half-day kindergarten program, it’s not a requirement for a district to have one. When districts are forced to cut programs to come under the new tax-levy cap or are faced with massive expenses and irate taxpayers, any nonrequired program is fair game, educators said.”

After contentious budget debates, Pennsylvania level-funded the Accountability Block Grant, which is frequently used to fund additional pre-K and kindergarten slots throughout the state. As a result, school districts had to make tough decisions.  In the face of a budget shortfall and no additional aid from the state, Manheim Township in Lancaster County put on hold their plans for full-day kindergarten. Allentown kept the full-day schedule for kindergarten classes but cut locations, resulting in only 250 kindergarten-age children being served compared to 800 in the previous year. And, in Harrisburg, kindergarten continues to operate only because of the generous support from the Harrisburg Public School Foundation after the school budget dropped the grade completely.

New York and Pennsylvania aren’t the only states faced with these challenges but they illustrate the problem. The White House has also been concerned about the scaling back of program schedules as one of a number of cost-saving measures in school, with their recent Investing in Our Future report looking at cut backs from full-day to half-day kindergarten programs.

At a time when schools and teachers are being asked to do more with less, the most likely result is that less really is less, despite the need for more.  Schedules are cut despite a sense among teachers and parents that kindergarteners need a full-day program; as one New York state kindergarten teacher put it, “We’re expecting a lot more of our children today. When you’re trying to deliver all the requirements children need to be successful in 2 ½ hours that can be stressful on not only the children, but the teachers too.” Teachers are still obligated – and are dedicated – to do as much as possible to help children start off on the right foot in their academic career but with literally less time in the day to do so, they face a real challenge.

We find that, generally, the public is surprised by cuts to kindergarten; we so frequently talk about K-12 schools that people assume kindergarten is protected just like any other grade in elementary school and beyond. If you are a teacher or a parent, what trends have you seen in this new school year? Have kindergarten programs been cut in your district?

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER

– Jen Fitzgerald, Public Information Officer, NIEER