Brownback to seek funds for all-day kindergarten programs

Gov. Sam Brownback said Monday that a five-year, $80 million plan he intends to propose next month would allow all kindergarten students in Kansas public schools to attend full-day programs, with the state picking up the bill.

Brownback said the idea came out of recent meetings between his office and school and legislative leaders.

Lawmakers and education officials have been deeply divided over total state funding for schools, the subject of ongoing litigation before the Kansas Supreme Court.

“Over a period of time, people have talked past each other; one said base state aid, the other’s talked total funding,” Brownback said.

However, all-day kindergarten seems to have generated some consensus, he said.

“It’s a key area for investment in students, and I’m going to endorse that in my budget, propose that we start building it up a tenth a year,” Brownback said.

The state now pays for half-day kindergarten. Districts that want all-day programs must find other funding sources to cover the full-day costs.

Brownback said he will propose that next year state funding be increased to cover six-tenths of a day; the following year seven-tenths and so on until the fifth year, when the state reaches 100 percent funding for full-day, five-days-a-week kindergarten.

Each tenth is expected to add $16 million in spending, he said. The first $16 million would come in the 2014-15 school year.

Brownback said the increase in kindergarten hours dovetails with other initiatives to improve reading scores in Kansas by the fourth grade.

“I’ve put a big focus on trying to get higher reading scores early on,” he said. “I think this is one of the next steps that we need to do.”

The proposal will be part of the budget recommendation Brownback will send to legislators in January for fiscal year 2015, which starts July 1, 2014. Kansas already spends more than $3 billion on public schools each year.

The State Board of Education has made all-day kindergarten one of its budget requests for the past several years.

All but about 15 of the state’s 286 districts provide all-day kindergarten, said Dale Dennis, deputy commissioner for fiscal and administrative services for the Kansas Department of Education. Most use money they receive from the state for at-risk students to pay the additional staffing costs, while another 20 or so districts charge parents per semester for all-day instruction, he said.

Dennis said all-day kindergarten fees for parents ranges from $270 a semester to $1,350 a semester.

“It depends on the community and what they can pay,” he said. “There’s a lot of public pressure not to charge. The majority don’t.”

The governor’s news is good, said Diane Gjerstad, government relations specialist for Wichita Public Schools, but it needs to be taken in context.

“It will take us five years to get there (full funding),” she said.

“Wichita alone could use half of that funding.”

The school district currently pays $8.5 million for 4,400 kindergartners to attend all-day school, Gjerstad said. The governor’s proposal will help – in time, she said.

“That cost we are now paying for out of other funds can eventually go as funds to assist all students across all grade levels, so we will not have that amount dedicated to kindergartners,” Gjerstad said. “It is a huge investment that our board has made.”

At Andover public schools, Keturah Austin said 188 kindergartners attend all-day school, 111 half-day. Andover has made its full-day program self-supporting by charging parents $275 a month for each full-day kindergartner, Austin said.

“Because we are able to charge a fee, it doesn’t come out of the rest of our budget,” she said.

Maize school district has about 450 kindergartners, of which about 60 percent are all day, said Lori O’Toole Buselt, director of communications for the Maize school district. Maize schools charge parents $250 a month if they send their children to all-day kindergarten.

“The governor’s plan would probably increase the number of kindergartners who attend all-day kindergarten at Maize because there are probably some who don’t do that now because they have to pay for it,” Buselt said.

Legislators have already approved a $14 increase in base state aid per pupil for the next academic year – part of a two-year budget that lawmakers approved in June. The money for all-day kindergarten would be an additional, targeted investment in education aimed at helping boost student skills at an early age.

Contributing: Dion Lefler and Beccy Tanner of The Eagle; Associated Press