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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah falls well below national trends when it comes to participation in full-day kindergarten.
Studies show it's a smart idea, but the state isn't paying for it.
Now, new data challenges an old narrative about Utah families, showing the issue isn't the level of interest — it's access.
New data shows broad support
During the summer, Voices for Utah Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization, worked with Utah-based market research company Y2 Analytics to randomly survey voters across the state.
According to the organization, 1,976 Utah voters participated.
The results indicate broad support for expanding full-day kindergarten, and even a willingness to fund it through paying higher taxes:
- 68% of survey respondents said they would "support the expansion of optional full-day kindergarten programs in all public schools throughout Utah."
- 69% showed support when asked to "imagine for a moment that in order to fund statewide availability for full-day kindergarten, each resident was required to pay an addition $5 per year in taxes."
The survey results showed a majority of respondents across Utah support the expansion of full-day kindergarten. That support topped 60% in every county surveyed except for Washington County (59%). Davis County (73%) and Salt Lake County (71%) showed the highest level of support.
The results also indicate similarly strong support across various political, social and religious affiliations.
Of survey respondents who identified themselves as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 65% supported the expansion of optional full-day kindergarten. Support ranged from 69-75% among respondents with other or no religious affiliations.
A majority (77%) of those who identified themselves as liberal supported full-day kindergarten expansion, as well as 61% of those who identified themselves as conservatives.
Support remained strong among men (64%), women (73%), people who live in a household with a stay-at-home parent (65%) and people who live in a household without a stay-at-home parent (69%).
Voices for Utah Children senior policy analyst Anna Thomas said the data shows there is ample support for making sure every Utah family has a choice about whether to participate in half or full-day kindergarten.
"We found that it's not a cultural barrier, it's not that Utahns don't value early education, it's that there's not the access," she said. "Districts and charter schools don't have the resources to offer it."
Utah's investment in kindergarten
According to census data for public education funding, Utah was second to last in the nation when it comes to per-pupil spending in 2019. At $8,014 per student, Utah narrowly outspent Idaho, the state with the lowest per-pupil spending rate that year.
The state spends even less on kindergarten students. The weighted pupil unit for kindergarten students is 0.55, or just over half of what is allocated for each student in first through twelfth grade.
Nationally, Voices for Utah Children estimates more than 80% of kindergarten students are in full-day programs, while in Utah, only 30% of kindergarten students participate in full-day classes.
Half-day classes range from 2½ to 3 hours, according to a 2020 report from the organization, while full-day classes typically last 7 to 7½ hours.
Several school districts offer limited access to full-day kindergarten classes through federal funding and the state's Optional Enhanced Kindergarten program, which typically prioritizes the students most at risk for falling behind.
Making the case for full-day K
"Kindergarten is the best," said Jennifer Millett, who taught kindergarten for 21 years. "You see so much growth. They come in just ready to learn."
She's taught both half-day and full-day classes and seen the difference in results first-hand.
"We find that those students that are coming into full-day are the lower students, but we are able to catch them up compared to their half-day students and even at times, (exceed) what the other students are doing," she said.
Millett is now the kindergarten specialist in the Granite School District but remembers the first year she taught full-day classes while a colleague taught half-day sessions and the teachers compared midyear reading scores.
"I had all but one of my students who was on the 'meets expectations,' and she had half of her class," said Millett. "My class had even started lower than hers, and so I had already seen the difference my first year teaching full-day, those kids are able to make such big gains in both reading and in math."
Numerous studies suggest full-day kindergarten leads to significant learning advantages for students and higher test scores — information that turned Kristina Pexton, a mother of five, into a passionate supporter.
"That was totally eye-opening to me," she said. "I never really gave it much thought before, but I was like, 'Oh, like that is a great advantage.'"
Her children attended half-day classes and wouldn't benefit now from expansion of full-day programs in the state, but Pexton, who also works with the Utah PTA, said she wants to see the opportunity of full-day kindergarten available for every family who wants to participate.
"By third grade, they're supposed to be at that third grade reading level — that's a great indicator that that child is going to graduate from high school, right?" Pexton explained. "So how do they get to a third grade reading level? Because they went to the second grade and the first grade. And how did they make their first grade reading level? It's because they got what they needed out of kindergarten. It is like the best start to that bright future."
Parents David and Ashlee Brower find themselves frustrated that full-day kindergarten isn't currently an option for their 4-year-old son, Henry, in the school district they live in.
"Especially when you kind of reflect on how we view ourselves as a state — it's very family-centered, there's lots of large families — you'd think we'd want to do and offer the most for families' educational needs," said David.
Both David and Ashlee Brower work full-time jobs. David Brower is Anna Thomas' brother, but neither of them was involved with the survey.
Ashlee Brower said when the time comes for her son to start kindergarten, one of their options is to send him to a half-day program. From there, he'd take a bus to an after-school day care where he currently attends preschool.
"The thought of a 5-year-old having to get on a bus at school and then get to a new location is somewhat daunting for me as a parent," she said.
Other options they've yet to consider seriously are pursuing a private or charter school that offers a full-day kindergarten program and moving to another school district where it might be accessible.
"It's frustrating that communities who don't have the resources that I have, both financially or even just access to day care, I mean, parents are having to work to just support some sort of child care for their kids or it's not an option, they have to stay home — It's just not available," Brower said.
Even if access for all comes with higher taxes, the Browers believe the investment would be well worth it.
"Children are kind of our future," said Ashlee Brower. "And I think we should all have an investment in that."
Equity in education
In a letter to the Utah State Board of Education, Granite School District Superintendent Rich Nye said 44 of the district's 59 elementary schools offer full-day kindergarten sessions through Optional Enhanced Kindergarten funding.
During the 2020-2021 school year, the district provided full-day classes to 1,225 kindergarten students, representing a quarter of the district's kindergarten population, but leaving hundreds more without the same access.
"Based on our district's student demographics and assessment scores, we are confident that another 2,500 kindergarten students would benefit from full-day kindergarten services," he wrote, explaining, "we have had to prioritize service to our most 'at-risk' students."
"Our full-day is at capacity, and we have parents that still want to be in full-day that we cannot," said Millett.
She said when access is limited, at-risk students fall through the cracks.
"That's what we worry about," she said.
Funding full-day kindergarten
Rep. Lowry Snow, R-St. George, chairs the House Education Committee. He said he's long been an advocate of expanding kindergarten — but has faced resistance.
"I think in Utah, I think we're still conservative and the idea that we're taking children away from family and from the home for an extended period and that that wasn't necessary was kind of a prevailing philosophy," he said.
His views on full-day kindergarten programs changed when he saw how they impacted students in his own district.
"When I looked at the data in Washington County, where the children who started behind, once they participated in extended kindergarten and then they were tested at the end, the results were overwhelming in terms of the effectiveness of the program," said Snow.
The last big legislative push for funding full-day kindergarten failed in 2011.
Snow took office in 2012 and said he's noticed a growing interest among parents but has also encountered pushback from fellow lawmakers.
"I've been looking at … expanding kindergarten and making it optional for all parents in the state," said Snow, though he said he has not made a final decision.
Thomas hopes the new data will persuade those who have not supported optional full-day kindergarten expansion in the past.
"What we really hope that the survey data will do is show elected officials at the state level that Utah families are interested in full-day kindergarten, they would like the opportunity to participate, and in general, registered voters are willing to support expansion of full-day kindergarten, financially, to make that opportunity available to Utah families," said Thomas.
Voices for Utah Children estimates it would cost $60 million in new funding to cover full-day kindergarten for all incoming students, but the actual cost could be lower because not everyone will choose to participate.
School board debate
Funding the move to full-day kindergarten is a top 10 priority for the State Board of Education.
Board members Friday afternoon ranked full-day kindergarten ninth on their list of 11 programs they'll ask Utah lawmakers to approve and fund next year. Items higher on the list included a funding boost for rural schools, the statewide expansion of an arts program and additional money to support at-risk students.
The board voted against moving full-day kindergarten higher on the list.
Board member Cindy Davis, who voted no, said she supports the program but has concerns about the costs of additional classroom space it would require.
"If we are going to double our kindergarten classrooms, it's going to take capital, because you don't just find space, oftentimes you have to build space," she said.
Families would still have the option to send students for half a day, noted Sara Wiebke, literacy coordinator with the board. Schools would have three years to find the space, she said.
"If parents felt like that wasn't the best fit for their child, they would not be required to attend the full day," she said.
Before the pandemic, those students outperformed the half-day kindergarteners four times over, Wiebke said. They're now performing twice as well.