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Kindergarten

Students do jumping jacks during their kindergarten class Monday afternoon, May 1, 2017, in Twin Falls.

The Twin Falls School District is surveying parents this spring about whether they’d want their youngsters to attend full-day kindergarten.

That’s a rarity in Idaho, where the vast majority of districts provide only half-day instruction. In fact, the state doesn’t require students to attend kindergarten in any form before entering first grade. And Idaho funds only voluntary half-day programs.

Without a steady funding stream, districts who want to pursue full-day kindergarten are left to scramble for money through grants, parents and other means.

That’s a shame, because study after study has shown that students who attend full-day kindergarten fare better not only in first grade but throughout their academic careers.

According to the National Education Association, who analyzed academic studies on full-day kindergarten:

Students who attend full-day kindergarten are better in reading and math than students who go half a day.

Full-day kindergarten is especially beneficial for low-income and minority students.

Teachers who spend more time with full-day kindergartners are more likely to spot their students’ academic weaknesses and intervene early, before the student gets left behind.

Students do better in full-day programs because they’re given more time to focus on activities. (Half-day kindergarten teachers often complain they feel like there’s not enough time to cram in all the needed lessons in half-day programs.)

Although full-day kindergarten is typically more expensive to fund up front, it actually saves money in the long run. Studies show for every dollar spent, the state will save $3. That’s because full-day leads to lower grade retention and drop-out rates later in life.

Parents and teachers prefer it. The NEA cites a 2000 study that showed 100 percent of full-day parents and 72 percent of half-day parents would choose or continue to choose full-day kindergarten if their district provided a program.

Like a lot of issues in Idaho education these days, it comes down to cost. The state is only now restoring education funding levels to pre-recession figures, and that doesn’t account for the rapid population growth that has crammed even more kids into Idaho classrooms. The same amount of money plus more students means those dollars don’t stretch quite as far as they did in 2009.

So if the state can barely pay for the education system we have now, how in the world is it supposed to come up with more money to fund kindergarten?

Perhaps the bigger question is how can it afford not to?

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Last year, Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter championed an $11.2 million “early intervention” program for students who hadn’t learned to read by third grade. We can’t help but wonder how many of those students wouldn’t be struggling had they attended full-day kindergarten. Rather than waiting until students are already behind, Idaho should be investing in students earlier, preventing the academic struggles from happening in the first place.

Several efforts have been made in recent years for Idaho to adopt a statewide public preschool program, an idea we’ve supported for many of the same reasons supported by early-education studies. But the state would be wise to adopt full-day kindergarten first.

Rep. Lance Clow, who represents Twin Falls and sits on the House Education Committee, has said he’d be interested in the Legislature taking up the debate over full-day kindergarten. But with the lawmakers facing elections next year, don’t bet on the Legislature adopting full-day kindergarten anytime soon. It would almost certainly require the state to raise taxes or cut other programs — something lawmakers try to avoid when they’re about to face voters in the election booth.

In the meantime, local districts are trying to get creative. In Murtaugh, as reporter Julie Wootton pointed out this week, youngsters have been attending full-day kindergarten for years. The program is financed by the district’s general budget, which amounts to paying a full-time teacher rather than a part-time teacher for the district’s only kindergarten class.

But in bigger districts like Twin Falls, the money is much harder to find. Full-day kindergarten has been offered at Lincoln Elementary in Twin Falls for struggling students, paid for by federal program money that’s about to run out. (In the full-day class, students’ reading scores have more than doubled since the beginning of the year.) Principals at the city’s other schools are now pursuing other funding programs that might help bring full-day kindergarten to more of the district’s schools.

The district is surveying parents to find out which schools have the most interest. Parents can phone their local schools to weigh in.

We encourage parents to get involved. Where there is a will, there is a way, after all, and schools will only get serious about offering full-day kindergarten when they know it’s what parents want.

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