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More Massachusetts schools offering full-day kindergarten
Telegram & Gazette, Story by Elaine Thompson, April 27, 2012

During the past decade, Massachusetts has come a long way in offering children full-day kindergarten, considered a critical component of a student’s academic career.

But, there are inequities with children in some districts only offered half-day sessions. And some districts that provide full-day kindergarten don’t charge for the service, while others charge parents thousands of dollars.

“Massachusetts is one of the states, to be perfectly honest with you, that concerns me as far as access to full-day kindergarten with regard to the tuition. There appears to be some inequity as far as the tuition and exactly what the tuition pays for,” said Cathy Grace, director of early childhood policy at the Washington-DC-based Children’s Defense Fund.

She said Massachusetts is one of only 14 states that allow school districts to charge tuition for kindergarten.

J.C. Considine, spokesman for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, in an email last week said districts are strongly urged to provide full-day kindergarten to ensure that children have the strongest start to their educational careers as possible. Districts are also urged not to charge tuition, “but for some, additional funding is needed to support the costs of increasing the amount of instructional time in kindergarten,” he said.

Since 2000, the number of kindergarten-age children in full-day kindergarten throughout the state has grown from 29 percent to 83 percent in the current school year. The increase is attributed to several things, including districts’ commitment to providing quality programs to bolster children’s literacy, math and social skills, and state kindergarten program grants. Districts with kindergarten-age children are required to provide part-time kindergarten sessions free of charge. Districts are not required to provide full-day kindergarten. Those that do are allowed to charge tuition for anything beyond the free half-day.

Since 2007, a $4,000 annual tuition cap has been placed on districts that receive state grants for kindergarten programs. Those districts also must have a sliding fee scale for families dependent on their income. There is not a cap for districts that do not receive those state grants.

This school year, 75 districts, including about 19 in Central Massachusetts, charge an average annual tuition of about $3,100. Many districts that don’t charge tuition help fund their programs with state Quality Full-Day Kindergarten grants and additional Chapter 70 money. The state also provides Transition to Full-Day Kindergarten grants to help districts transition their half-day programs into universal full-day programs. Auburn, Gardner and Hopedale are among the districts that eliminated annual tuitions after receiving state assistance.

Space is a primary issue for some districts having limited full-day kindergarten programs. Grafton and Uxbridge will have the space to implement or expand to universal full-day kindergarten this fall after new high schools open. Neither will charge tuition. Grafton budgeted $250,000 to implement the program. Additional Chapter 70 money, which lags a year behind, will cover the cost going forward. The district is expecting about 240 kindergartners this fall.

Curtis Spargo’s daughter, who is in second grade at South Grafton Elementary School, went to one of the half-day kindergarten sessions two years ago. He is excited that his 5-year-old son, who goes to a pricey private day care in Westboro, will go to the free full-day kindergarten at his daughter’s school this fall. Mr. Spargo said it was a big inconvenience with his daughter in school for just half the day.

“It was very inconvenient because both parents have to work to live. She had to be driven to school in the morning and then be picked up around noon to be taken to day care until 5:30 and then we would pick her up after work,” Mr. Spargo said.

Uxbridge currently has a limited full-day program with an annual tuition of $2,940. The tuition will be eliminated beginning this fall after universal full-day kindergarten begins, partly funded with a state Transition to Full-Day Kindergarten grant. In 2013, the district will receive Chapter 70 money for 120 students in full-day kindergarten as opposed to half that amount when students were in the half-day program. School Superintendent George L. Zini said this school year, parents of 17 kindergarten students sent their children to neighboring school choice districts — including Northbridge, Douglas, Mendon and Upton — that don’t charge tuition. Uxbridge had to send those districts about $5,000 for each student, he said.

“One of the things we struggled with (in the limited) full-day program, we’ve had many parents go to school choice other districts for nothing. If we were to charge tuition for (universal) full-day kindergarten, we would have the same problem,” he said.

As a rapidly growing school district, Shrewsbury has had to use a lottery system to place students in its limited full-day kindergarten program. This fall, universal full-day kindergarten will be offered to all students, projected at more than 300, for the first time. The move has a lot to do with budget problems. Grades are being reconfigured at some schools to free up space to add more full-day kindergarten sessions at Beal Early Childhood Center. Elementary schoolteachers that were slated to be laid off will now be shifted to teaching kindergarten classes. A $400 increase in the annual tuition to $3,200 this fall will cover the costs of the expanded programs.

Shrewsbury School Superintendent Joseph Sawyer said in the future he would be pleased to be able to offer full-day kindergarten at no charge, but it’s not a reality at this point. He noted that the tuition is still significantly less than what area private kindergarten facilities charge.

“Given the fact we’re in the position of cutting over $2.3 million out of the school budget, I don’t see an opportunity at this point where the town would be able to bridge the gap until state aid kicked in if we were going to offer it with no fee. What the revenue (from the additional full-day kindergarten sessions) has allowed us to do is preserve teacher jobs. Without it, more would have lost their jobs,” Mr. Sawyer said.

Amy O’Leary, director, Early Education for All, a campaign of Strategies for Children, said the state over the past 10 years has put policies in place to focus attention on high-quality education starting at birth. Gov. Deval Patrick’s fiscal 13 budget proposes nearly $26 million for Quality Full-Day Kindergarten grant funding, an increase of $3 million. Although it was $33.8 million in fiscal 09 before the economic downturn.

“Tuition is the next big frontier to tackle with full-day kindergarten, along with ensuring it is a quality program. When we started, free of charge was the ultimate, ultimate,” Ms. O’Leary said. “I think right now fiscal realities are telling us … we are far away from that idea.”

Ms. Grace, spokeswoman for the Children’s Defense Fund, said school districts should not have to rely on state grants to help fund something as important as full-day kindergarten. She suggested that Massachusetts should join the 10 states that have a stable-funding source for kindergarten that is imbedded in the funding formula for K-12.

“When you have states that have grant programs or programs not protected through a funding formula, it is subject to whether or not that district can or chooses to meet that expense through the district budget or whether they choose to charge parents for the part that is not covered by the state,” she said. “If they (Massachusetts) want to do right by all children regardless of income, they have to adopt statewide stable funding, just like they have for first grade and fifth grade."

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