Education

Kindergarten is commonly thought of as the first year of a child’s formal education. Most Kentucky kids, just like most American kids, attend for a full day. But that’s not how the state has been funding it. 

For decades, the Kentucky General Assembly only funded a half-day per kindergartener, leaving it to local school districts and, in some cases, parents to pick up the rest of the tab.

Next year, that will change. State lawmakers passed legislation last month that would fund full-day kindergarten for all students for the 2021-2022 school year.

The $140 million in funding was a bargaining chip, used to sway key votes on an unrelated bill to create a controversial tax-credit scholarship program.

What that additional kindergarten funding means for school districts depends on their current policies.

The Possible End Of Kindergarten Fees

When it was time for Oldham County Schools mom Devan Gunderson Lindemier to enter her youngest child in kindergarten, she got an email from her school, Buckner Elementary, welcoming the family and alerting her to a $350 registration fee she would owe to enroll her child.

“Some people are shocked by the cost of enrolling in kindergarten,” Gunderson Lindemier said. “That’s difficult on some families.”

Oldham County Schools is one of a handful of public school districts in Kentucky that relies on fees or tuition from families to help cover the cost of full-day kindergarten. Oldham County uses local tax dollars, plus the $350 registration fee to close the gap. Other districts charge much more.

In Campbell County Schools, parents pay up to $2,750 a year to participate in the full-day program. The cost is reduced to $1,320 for low-income families who qualify for reduced-price lunch, and free for families who are on free lunch. Oldham County Schools also offers a fee waiver for low-income families.

David Rust, superintendent of Campbell County Schools, said the new funding for kindergarten will mean no family will have to pay.

“That’s the big thing,” Rust said. “We’re going to be able to say to our parents, ‘We now are going to be able to provide full-day kindergarten for any one who wants it, and the state is going to fund it.’”

There are only a few districts that rely on parent fees to cover full-day kindergarten. And, like Campbell, they tend to be in northern Kentucky, where school systems get some of the lowest amounts of funding per child from the state.

“We do receive far less per child than most any other district,” Rust said. “I think there’s five or six other districts in the state that receive less than we do.”

The state distributes funding through the SEEK formula based on what it believes a district can raise through local property taxes. The wealthier the state thinks a district is, the lower the per-pupil allocation. Campbell County, a relatively wealthy suburb of Cincinnati, for example, receives $2,575 per student. Meanwhile Whitley County, one of the poorest areas in southeastern Kentucky, receives $6,046 per student. The formula is supposed to promote equitable state spending.

But many superintendents, Rust included, say the formula is flawed. Districts aren’t always able to raise the local funds the state thinks they can. Then for kindergarteners, the state takes that already-low per-student allocation and cuts it in half.

Rust said his district is already so financially stressed, they can’t close the gap with local tax dollars, so they rely on families to pay tuition if they want the full-day program. Otherwise, they can attend half-day at no cost.

Rust expects the additional funding will mean more students will be able to participate in the full-day program, and that’s a good thing, he said.

“Those preparatory pieces for students help define a child’s being on reading level, being with all their peers by the time they get to third grade. We want them to be ahead and not behind. And having full-day kindergarten helps to ensure that comes to fruition,” he said.

Boone County Schools, also in northern Kentucky, is the only school district where some schools offer only half-day. Officials say this is because some elementary school campuses don’t have enough space for full-day programs. 

Jim Flynn, the executive director of Kentucky Association of School Superintendents, said the full-day funding may make it “more appealing” to  invest in facility expansion to accommodate more full-day kindergarten students.

“When you’re only getting half funding, and you’re going to have to not only find funding for the space, but also find the funding to provide the other half required [for instruction], that makes it a much more challenging financial proposition,” Flynn said. 

Freed-Up Local Funds

Research shows there are a lot of benefits to full-day kindergarten programming, like more time for play-based instruction, better test scores down the line, and more opportunities for parents — usually moms — to work during the day. 

Flynn said that’s why the vast majority of Kentucky school districts only offer full-day and don’t charge fees or tuition. They use local tax dollars to make up the difference between what the state pays and the cost of a full day of kindergarten.

“Districts kind of took the leap of faith and said, ‘This is the right thing to do for our kids and our community,’” he said.

In Jefferson County Public Schools, which does not charge parents, the additional kindergarten funding will free up about $9 million in local funds, according to district spokesman Mark Hebert.

“It will allow JCPS to shift those funds, and free up that money for other things that promote teaching, and learning and other direct services to students,” he said.

Education leaders say this is especially important, given the millions of dollars in cuts state lawmakers have made in recent years to funding necessities like classroom materials, textbooks, professional development and transportation.

The full-day funding is so far only in effect for next year. District superintendents are hopeful lawmakers will make the change permanent when they return to Frankfort.

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.