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Editorial: Full-day kindergarten a risk worth funding

In a bold move, the Spokane Public Schools board voted Wednesday to offer full-day kindergarten at all elementary schools this fall. It’s bold because the state won’t fully fund kindergarten until the 2017-18 school year. In the meantime, the district will have to make up the difference.

We applaud the move, but it doesn’t come without risks and tradeoffs.

Currently, 15 of the district’s schools offer full-day kindergarten. These are the highest-poverty schools, which the Legislature has agreed to fund first as part of a plan for total implementation. The district expects to get about $1.36 million for kindergarten in the coming school year, but the annual cost of full-day kindergarten is about $3.9 million. So, to expand the offering to its remaining 19 elementary schools, the district must make a significant financial commitment.

This tapping of local levy dollars continues until the state assumes total responsibility. As a component of “basic education,” kindergarten falls under the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision, which forces full state funding of all grade levels by 2018. The certitude of that deadline makes the school board’s choice easier, but it’s still a leap most districts have declined to make.

Now, SPS must fill 25 full-time teaching positions and hire other employees, such as counselors. In deciding to spend so much on full-day kindergarten, the district is forgoing other priorities that may arise.

But we think it’s worth it, because full-day kindergarten is a vital precursor to improving the entire educational experience. It fits nicely with the current emphasis on Common Core standards, which calls for teaching some concepts one grade sooner. For that to work, new students need to be brought up to speed more quickly. This is a point critics miss when they call kindergarten “baby-sitting” or “day care.”

Critics of early learning make a valid point in noting research that shows the positive effects wear off around third grade. That’s why reform must be coupled with higher-level learning in subsequent grades. As school board member Bob Douthitt said, “It’s really important what you do in third and fourth grade.”

A statewide assessment of new kindergartners showed that a disturbingly high percentage of them can’t count to 20. For many, it’s their first experience in a classroom setting, having not attended preschool. A longer day in kindergarten can help erase those disadvantages and prepare students for success over the next 12 years.

The school board’s decision places the district at the forefront of education in the state. Young children here will benefit while others around the state are forced to wait. But the ultimate test of the decision will be whether the public sees the benefits sustained all the way to graduation.

High quality is paramount or support will wane.

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