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Editorial: Full-day kindergarten a long-term investment

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For years, education leaders across the state pushed for funding for full-day kindergarten. For this academic year, the state is covering most of the cost of such programs; but future funding is not secure.

There is no way to immediately gauge the success of full-day programs. In fact, we might not see any benefits for nearly a decade. But to make sure future students don’t lose out on any benefits from better preparation for the traditional classroom, state funding needs to remain in place.

Indiana schools receive tax dollars to pay for employees’ salaries and benefits based on the number of students enrolled, but schools receive half as much for kindergarteners as they do for students in Grades 1-12. Early last year, Gov. Mitch Daniels announced the state was increasing funding for full-day kindergarten programs with an additional $2,400 per student.

The nearly $190 million Indiana now provides schools isn’t enough to cover the complete cost of full-day kindergarten at all school districts, but four Johnson County school districts either started full-day programs or stopped charging parents for the first time.

For example, the Clark-Pleasant school district was short nearly $135,000 needed to provide full-day kindergarten for this school year’s 491 kindergartners, business and finance director Steve Sonntag said. But because Clark-Pleasant wanted to provide a free full-day program, which it had never done before, it covered the shortfall with the tax money it already received for its first- through 12th-grade students.

The increase in kindergarten money was enough for Greenwood schools to be able to provide full-day kindergarten classes at all four elementary schools for the first time. And Center Grove and Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson school districts dropped the full-day fees they’d been charging parents, which were $1,827 and $450, respectively.

A total of 1,834 kindergartners enrolled in area public schools for the start of the year, and for the first time they were all in full-day programs that didn’t come with an added cost for parents.

But as administrators and teachers plan their kindergarten programs for the 2013-2014 school year, they don’t know how much taxpayer money they’ll receive for full-day programs.

During this year’s session, the General Assembly will work with a new state superintendent of public instruction, Glenda Ritz, and new governor, Mike Pence, to determine whether schools will receive more or less money for full-day programs. The legislative session will start Monday, and legislators will draft and approve a two-year budget and other legislation.

Pence spokeswoman Christy Denault said Pence plans to focus on jobs and education during his term and wants to work with legislators to determine funding that leads to success in both areas.

If the amount of state funding is cut, then local districts would have to review whether they could continue to pay for full-day kindergarten programs at all of their schools. And if the additional money were eliminated, Clark-Pleasant would have to consider going back to a half-day program, Sonntag said.

“I think we need to congratulate legislators for taking this step, but now they need to take the next step and fund it fully,” Sonntag said.

Attending kindergarten isn’t mandatory in Indiana, but public schools are required to offer some kind of kindergarten program to eligible students. The state legislature’s decision to increase funding for full-day kindergarten has led to a 19 percent increase in students enrolling in kindergarten programs across the state, according to the Indiana Department of Education.

This increase in enrollment alone should help youngsters be better prepared for first grade.

Anecdotal evidence indicates schools are seeing success with full-day programs. But we don’t know how much of an impact there will be later on.

The legislature should continue funding full-day programs at least at current levels. That way, educators can better assess the success of the full-day programs.

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