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Bill would give all Utah kids access to full-day kindergarten within three years

Only about 30% of families in Utah have access to full-day kindergarten.
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Only about 30% of families in Utah have access to full-day kindergarten.

Every kid in Utah could soon have access to full-day kindergarten, thanks to a $48 million bill moving through the state legislature.

Expanding the option statewide has been a hope for many schools and parents over the years, but Utah has lagged far behind every other state in the country — and behind Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico — in making it available.

“Currently in the United States, we are 50 of the 50, or 51 of the 51, or 52 of the 52 — however you decide to count it,” said the bill’s sponsor Rep. Steve Waldrip, R-Eden, in a House Education Committee hearing last week.

Only 30% of kids in Utah have access to full-day programs, Waldrip noted. In Alaska, the state with the second-lowest availability, 75% of kids have access.

Sara Wiebke, a literacy coordinator with the Utah State Board of Education, said that disparity is part of the push for change now, along with the impacts to students during the pandemic.

National studies have found that students who attend full-day kindergarten have better reading and math scores as they get older, show higher learning growth rates and have less need for remediation later on compared to those who attend a half-day or less.

Officials from the Washington County School District, which used federal COVID-relief funds to expand its full-day program recently, said afterwards the percentage of kids who knew all their letters and sounds increased 30%.

“You do have support from all 41 school district superintendents and school boards on this bill,” Sevier District Superintendent Cade Douglas said to lawmakers.

The bill would require all charter schools and districts to offer it, though it would not be mandatory to attend. Kindergarten is optional for Utah students.

Wiebke said many districts already offer full-day kindergarten and would not need much to scale it up. But others have significant work ahead, from finding additional classroom space to hiring teachers in a tight labor market and tailoring programs to local needs.

Gary Thomas, assistant superintendent for elementary education with the Cache County School District, said his main hurdle will be finding an additional 25 classrooms. He said they are a growing district, so limited space is a perpetual challenge. But at least wIth Utah State University nearby, he says there are plenty of future teaching candidates available.

Douglas said he’s been advocating for full-day expansion for close to a decade. Right now, the district offers it in a limited capacity. About 35% of kindergarten families are enrolled in full-day classes in the Sevier District, but Douglas anticipates that around 98% of parents will choose the option when it becomes more widely available.

To make that happen though, he said they might need to provide an additional bus route, as the number of kids who need transportation could more than double. They might also have to convert some computer labs into classrooms, add portable classes to schools or extend existing buildings to provide more space.

“We're a little nervous because there's a lot of unknowns here,” he said. “But as soon as we see this bill pass, we're going to set those plans that we've had into motion and we think we can pull it off.”

The bill does not require district and charter schools to have the option available to all parents for three years, when most reported they could reasonably get them up and running. After that, the funding allocated in the bill will become part of the education fund’s base budget.

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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