Thanks to pressure from a successful school-funding lawsuit against Washington state, and a $50 million investment by the Legislature, twice as many children will be in state-paid, full-day kindergarten this fall.
The change affects children in 269 schools in 38 of the state’s 39 counties. The new money is being distributed according to poverty rates, so schools with the most kids who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch are the first to get money for free all-day kindergarten.
With the money aimed at specific schools, only some of the students in most districts will benefit from the new state dollars. But some districts are also using local dollars to expand free, full-day kindergarten for all kids.
Other school districts have gone in the opposite direction — turning away the state money because they don’t have enough room for more classes or the money to buy portable classrooms.
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In fall 2012, 22 percent of the state’s kindergartners were in all-day sessions paid for by the state. This fall, 44 percent will get the extra schooling without having to pay tuition. The Legislature will need to find an additional $100 million or so by fall 2017 to get every kindergartner in free all-day school.
Washington adopted the goal of full-day kindergarten for all in 2006, but six years later the Washington Supreme Court gave lawmakers a push toward fulfilling that promise by giving them a deadline.
Kindergarten is just one of the reforms pinpointed in the Supreme Court’s January 2012 McCleary decision. The result of the lawsuit brought by school districts, teachers, parents and community groups also calls for smaller class sizes in early grades, state-funded pupil transportation, a stable source of school dollars from the state, and less reliance on local levies to pay the costs of basic education.
In Seattle, state funding allows 27 public schools to offer free, full-day kindergarten, said Patti Spencer, a Seattle Public Schools spokeswoman.
Forty-one other schools charge $3,110 per year for full-day kindergarten, she said, but reduced prices are available for families that qualify.
The state is expected to fund more full-day classes in the future as an emphasis on early education becomes more widespread, Spencer said.
Vancouver Public Schools was happy to get more state money to support its focus on early education. Vancouver has 21 elementary schools. Fourteen will have state-funded full-day kindergarten classes this year, and the rest will be paid for by local dollars. That’s more than triple the full-day kindergarten classrooms offered last fall.
All-day kindergarten helps cement early literacy skills and helps every kid make the progress needed to reach state benchmarks for literacy and math by third grade, said Marianne Thompson, executive director of teaching and learning for the Vancouver district’s elementary grades.
Because of overcrowding, the Mukilteo School District, just southwest of Everett, was forced to take a different approach this fall.
Mukilteo turned down state money because the district didn’t have the room for more classes and instead is exploring the possibility of a bond election to pay for construction of more elementary classrooms.
District spokesman Andy Muntz said growing enrollment plus full-day kindergarten and the state goal of reduced class sizes in the early grades would require Mukilteo to add an estimated 85 more classrooms, or about 3½ new schools.
Muntz doubts that voters would support that much new construction.
“That just won’t happen,” he said. “Meanwhile our enrollment will keep growing.”