Utah is (again) taking a crack at funding full-day kindergarten
Update: HB477 passed out of the House Education Committee by unanimous vote. Our original story continues below.
Republican Rep. Robert Spendlove thinks this is the year the Utah State Legislature will fund full-day kindergarten for every school and family that wants it.
In 2022, the Legislature considered a $48 million bill to increase access to full-day kindergarten. But the funding was cut to just $12 million before the bill was passed. School districts and charter schools have to apply to get a portion of the funding.
In October, the Utah State Board of Education estimated it would take over $50 million to provide all-day kindergarten for every child in the state.
Spendlove said the board approached him about running a bill to make that funding possible. HB477 would give school districts and charter schools funding for all-day kindergarten through the weighted pupil unit, which is the base amount of funding that the state gives schools for each student they have enrolled.
Instead of having to apply for a funding grant, every school would automatically receive money from the state’s base budget for every full-day kindergarten student it has. The state already gives school districts per-pupil funding for kindergarten, but it is about half the amount that schools get for students in other grades. This bill would change the weighted pupil unit formula so schools get the same amount for full-day kindergartners as they do for older students.
“What we know is that nationwide, about 70 to 80 percent of kids this age have access to all day kindergarten,” Spendlove said. “In Utah, it's around 30%. And so we're really trying to catch up with the rest of the country in doing this.”
Spendlove thinks this will not only increase access, but it would also give individual schools more flexibility, especially if they don’t currently have the capacity to have an all-day program for every interested family.
“We’re giving each school essentially total flexibility in how they implement this. So, they can choose to keep the system they have now, they can keep half-day kindergarten, they can do one class of all-day kindergarten,” Spendlove said.
The bill appropriates $60 million, but Spendlove said it will most likely not cost the state that much. He said it will depend on how many children are actually enrolled in full-day kindergarten.
Parents would not be required to enroll their child since kindergarten is not mandatory in Utah and the bill requires school districts and charter schools to provide a half-day option if requested.
Spendlove said he’s worked closely with the state board, school districts, teachers and others in the education community on developing the bill and is confident that it will pass.
Voices for Utah Children has been a vocal advocate for full-day kindergarten and is excited about what’s in front of lawmakers.
“We know from the research from other states, from school districts that have already done it in Utah, that full-day kindergarten works really well for kids. And we know from our own research that a lot of families would like their kids to participate in it,” Senior Policy Analyst Anna Thomas said. “So we think this is just the logical step.”
Thomas likes the idea of funding full-day kindergarten through the weighted pupil unit because, even if some schools are not ready to offer it, those schools can confidently build out their capacity because they know they have a stable source of funding for when they are ready.
However, Thomas is not as optimistic as Spendlove that the bill will pass this year. While she is cautiously optimistic, she is still nervous because of how the legislative session ended last year.
“The generally supported bill fell apart at the last minute. It’s hard to let myself get too excited that this will be the year that families will finally have what they want and what they need.”
Thomas said one thing that does feel different from last year is the amount of community investment and engagement. She said families and others have been regularly going to the Capitol to talk with lawmakers about kindergarten funding and parents statewide are writing opinion pieces in newspapers to express their support.
“More than any other year in the past, if this bill doesn't pass, it is going to feel like a huge disappointment,” Thomas said. “I think there's a different level of accountability this year for our state leaders, and that makes me feel more hopeful.”
Spendlove’s bill is scheduled to have its first hearing in the House Education Committee Feb. 21.