Should full-day kindergarten be required in New Jersey? A state task force may soon form to assess the pros and cons of mandating kindergartners stay in school for the entire day. Sounds like a no-brainer, right? In these days of heightened academic expectations and working parents, who wouldn’t support a program already available in most of the state’s public school districts?
Thirty years ago, most kids attended kindergarten for only half a day. In my elementary school in Queens, NY, the older half of the grade went in the morning and the younger half in the afternoon. By the 1990s, after pleas from parents and early education advocates, half-day kindergarten started to go the way of bell-bottoms, while full-day enrollment for five-year-olds accelerated.
Breaking Down the Debate
By 2012, 77 percent of kids across the country went to full-day kindergarten, according to a report from Child Trends Data Bank and New Jersey followed the trend. By 2015, more than 80 percent of the state’s kindergartners were in full-day programs, according to the NJ Department of Education. Though a majority of Garden State districts offer full-day kindergarten, New Jersey law doesn’t require it, with the exception of 31 state-funded and lower income school districts. It doesn’t even require parents to register children for school until age six, typically by first grade.
New legislation passed by the state Assembly would establish a task force to research what it would take to give every kindergarten-age student access to a full-day program. The bill would authorize the group to study the academic, social and emotional impact of day-long kindergarten, according to the NJ School Boards Association. It would also look at staffing, space, class size and funding and compare full- and half-day curriculums. The Senate Education Committee, meanwhile, passed a bill in March (which awaits full Senate review) that would require public schools to offer whole-day kindergarten.
To many, task forces sound like half-measures. Often they are. But part of understanding NJ’s kindergarten accessibility is knowing that last year Governor Chris Christie vetoed a bill that would have mandated full-day sessions, likely because he didn’t want to interfere with local control. And, while it may be easy to criticize Christie, the truth is that he’s not the only naysayer. Front and center against a mandate is the lobby representing private childcare providers, many of whom offer full-day kindergarten programs.
Last year the NJ Child Care Association protested the prospect of statewide full-day kindergarten, citing the infringement of local control, burdens on taxpayers and undue influence of teacher unions. They said in part: “The reality is that this debate centers [on] what is the fairest method for delivery of this program. Do we burden the entire tax base with increased taxes forever, in order to relieve some families of a temporary cost?”
More convincingly, some districts just don’t have the room. Edison Superintendent Richard O’Malley, for example, eliminated full-day kindergarten in 2010 when the state cut school aid. A student enrollment surge made extension of the half-day program untenable, O’Malley argued. Some districts use full-day kindergarten as a revenue stream. The Evesham Township School District, for example, offers a full-day option at all seven of its elementary schools for $5,500 per child per year.
The Scotch Plains-Fanwood Public Schools, meanwhile, will begin offering full-day kindergarten in September. “We believe strongly that full-day kindergarten widens opportunities for children to be better prepared for their academic career,” says Margaret W. Hayes, Superintendent of Schools. The district decided not to charge parents so that it could reach the broadest range of kids, Hayes said. Using its operating budget, it’s building six new classrooms and may hire as many as 18 teachers for its five elementary schools, she added.
Money, space and local control aside, full-day kindergarten makes sense, according to NJEA Vice President Marie Blistan who testified to the Senate Education Committee in October. “Children who have a developmentally appropriate full-day experience—especially for students from disadvantaged backgrounds—have higher achievement in later grades, better overall school attendance and more developed social and emotional skills,” she said.
Or, as Assemblywoman Betty Lou DeCroce (R-Morris) noted, perhaps less felicitously, “Kindergarteners are so smart today, they need to be in school all day. Electronically, their minds are way above some of us.”
Between task forces and proposed legislation, New Jersey seems to be on its way to mandating full-day kindergarten in all public schools. And though the timeline remains unclear, the trend is certain.