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Teacher Megan Stone assesses kindergartner Kaylee Turner at Cumberland School in Sunnyvale.
Editors Note: In the second of two articles based on a new report by EdSource titled “Early Learning Time: Accessing Full-Day Preschool and Kindergarten in California,” we examine the state’s progress in providing full-day or “extended day” kindergarten to all children. In the first part, we looked at full-day, state-subsidized preschool. 

Even though substantial research shows that children benefit academically from attending a full-day kindergarten program, only about 70 percent of California’s elementary schools offer full-day programs, according to a new EdSource report.

That’s in part because state law requires schools to offer only a half-day of kindergarten, and the state pays school districts the same amount, based on student attendance, regardless of whether they offer a half-day or full-day program, according the report titled “Expanded Early Learning Time: Accessing Full-Day Preschool and Kindergarten in California,

Districts who offer full-day classes must come up with the funds to cover the extra costs of hiring more teachers, finding the additional classroom space, and other expenses from other parts of their budgets. There is, therefore, a financial incentive to only offer half-day classes.

A half-day program in California is defined as a minimum of three hours of instruction a day, excluding lunch and recess, for a total of 540 hours over a 180-day school year. Although many schools offer more than that, California is behind at least 19 other states surveyed by the Education Commission of the States that require schools to offer more time in kindergarten. The survey noted that “students who attend full-day kindergarten are more likely to have better attendance, academic success and social/emotional development.”

California lags behind many other states even though the Legislature has been moving to establish full-day early learning programs as a priority in California. Three years ago, the Legislature approved legislation regarding state-supported preschool, declaring that “it is the intent of the state to provide all low-income 4-year-old children from working families with full-day, full-year early education and care.”

The Legislature has been less definitive when it comes to embracing full-day kindergarten, but it is moving in that direction.

The budget legislation (Senate Bill 828) for the current fiscal year requires State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson to report to the Legislature by this July on the average costs of full-day and part-day kindergarten and to lay out “options for incentivizing full-day kindergarten, including providing differentiated funding rates for full-day and part-day programs.”

The influential Assembly Blueprint for Responsible Budget Priorities, issued in December by Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, chair of the Assembly Budget Committee, also called for requiring full-day kindergarten across the state.

As every parent of young children knows, full-day kindergarten does not mean “full day” in the normal sense of the term. Full-day kindergarten at Main Elementary School in Los Angeles, for example, runs from 8 a.m. to 2:19 p.m.  As a result, parents who work full-time typically have to find additional care for children when kindergarten gets out in the early afternoon.

California has made considerable progress in recent years in offering full-time kindergarten, but it still has a way to go in catching up with most states.

In 2001, only 11 percent of students enrolled in full-day kindergarten, according to a PPIC report. In 2005, the Legislature loosened requirements to make it easier for districts to offer full-day kindergarten programs. This occurred principally as a result of the passage of Assembly Bill 2407, a two-paragraph law that has had an outsized impact on kindergarten programs in the state. The bill, authored by Assemblyman Rudy Bermudez, D-Norwalk, removed a requirement that districts apply to the State Board of Education for a waiver to offer a full-day kindergarten program.

By 2013, according to Education Week’s Quality Counts, 57 percent of students in California were attending full-day kindergarten. No figures are available on the actual number of students in full-day kindergarten in the current school year, but about 70 percent of schools are offering full-day classes, according to California Department of Education figures.

At the same time, experts point out that simply spending more time in a classroom is not enough. Rather, the focus must be on the quality of the instruction offered.

“Just having more time is not sufficient,” said Marjorie Wechsler, principal research manager at the Learning Policy Institute, a research and policy organization in Palo Alto. “What children do in that time really matters. They need access to high-quality learning environments with skilled educators.”

Aside from its potential impact on learning outcomes, half-day kindergarten also presents logistical challenges for working parents.

“It’s difficult to pause in the middle of the day and transport kids somewhere else,” said Kate Miller, senior associate for early childhood policy at Children Now. “It’s also easier on kids to not be carted here and there. It is better for young children to be in one setting rather than move around as parents try to piece together different options.”

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