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Slashed funding to all-day kindergarten proposal is a blow to education advocates

A close-up  photo of a school child holding a pencil in their hand and practicing letters.
Aleksandra Nigmatulina
Only about 30% of Utah parents have access to all-day kindergarten, compared to about 80% nationally.

Making all-day kindergarten available to every kid in Utah was a top priority for education leaders this year.

Utah lags far behind every other state in the country in providing access to it. But it’s seen as increasingly important for setting students up for later success in life, helping kids build a strong foundation in reading and math and confidence in learning.

“I look at all of the education bills and all the things we're trying to do with different programs, I think this is the single most important one I've seen all session,” Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, said Friday in the Senate Education Committee.

Up until that hearing, it seemed like all-day kindergarten was going to happen. A bill that would’ve appropriated $48 million to districts and charter schools over the next three years to expand all-day classes had advanced through several committees and the House of Representatives.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere for many school district leaders, the funding was slashed down to $12 million along with other logistical changes that will make it much harder to implement, particularly for rural and geographically spread out districts.

Nan Ault, superintendent of the North Sanpete School District, said her biggest challenge ahead is planning. The original bill would have provided some certainty with funding and a three to four year leadup to when schools had to offer a full-day option.

Now, not only is the funding significantly reduced, but it’s not clear to her yet how it will be distributed.

“If I have the funding, I can staff, I can arrange for bussing if I have to,” she said. “I can get kids where they need to be. But I can't do this on short notice.”

That means that rather than beginning planning for a full-day option, now the district is only likely to see a small amount of the $12 million, on top of funding it receives through the current model — an optional extended-day kindergarten only for kids who need specific interventions. She said the additional funding may help her move a part-time teacher to full-time, but she can’t begin to hire additional staff or other major plans without a guarantee of future funding as well.

Juab School District Superintendent Kodey Hughes said the funding now will not go very far for his district, where he would at least need to hire two new teachers and potentially add building space. He said the latter point seems to have been an obstacle some districts were reluctant to take on, though it was part of the reason the original bill provided up to four years for schools to roll the program out.

“It's a hardship for my district,” he said. “But I choose to say I will deal with the hardship for the benefit of what this brings to kids.”

Hughes said it’s frustrating to see the last minute changes, but the momentum towards all-day kindergarten is clearly growing in the state. He said he’ll be back at the negotiating table next year and anticipates continued progress ahead.

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