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Explainer: Advocates Argue for Full-Day Kindergarten in New Jersey

Does the Garden State suffer from a ‘kindergarten gap’ that could hold back the state’s youngest students?

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While many education advocates are focused on making pre-K a standard part of public school, they also point out another gap that remains for some children after they leave preschool. Not only is kindergarten not mandatory in New Jersey, but also tens of thousands of children are in half-day programs, which are considered less beneficial than full-day, especially for disadvantaged kids.

Last week the Assembly passed a bill that would create a task force to study creating full-day kindergarten statewide. Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a similar bill last year. Other bills that would mandate kindergarten have been repeatedly introduced but made little progress.

No state mandate: State law requires children to start attending school when they’re 6 years old, which usually means first grade. New Jersey is one of just six states without mandatory kindergarten, though public kindergarten has become increasingly common in the past few decades. There were 92,322 children in kindergarten in 2013-2014, compared with 78,251 in 1986, according to data from the state Department of Education and the National Center for Education Statistics. Eighty-six percent of districts offer kindergarten.

The only districts required to offer full-day kindergarten are the 31 Abbott districts, which are largely state-funded under court orders requiring more resources for at-risk children. Attendance, however, remains voluntary.

There are about 7,000 more first-graders than kindergarteners in the public schools. Many of those missing children are in private schools or daycare.

Half day vs. full-day: Eighty-one percent of public school kindergartners, or 74,545, were in full-day programs last year and the rest were in half-day. The trend is toward full-day enrollments, which increased 9 percent from 2010 to 2014, while the half-day figure fell by a one-third, according to Advocates for Children of New Jersey (ACNJ).

The arguments for: Supporters of universal full-day kindergarten point to research showing that those students have smoother transitions to first grade and do better in elementary school.

“A full day of kindergarten instruction has been shown to help students not just academically, but socially,” Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-Essex), a cosponsor of the Assembly bill, said last week. "There are already too many achievement gaps that unfairly disadvantage some students. If full-day kindergarten has the potential to create a better foundation for our students, then we should look into it. This is an investment in the future of our children."

Several studies have found that “that full-day programs consistently seem more effective than half-day kindergarten, especially for disadvantaged students,” according to a research summary posted by the state DOE.

In addition to being better prepared for first grade, the students have higher grades and test scores when they are older, as well as better attendance, faster acquisition of language skills, and better conduct, such as obeying playground rules and working well with others, according to the summary by the WestEd Center on Policy. Former full-day kindergarteners may repeat grades less often in elementary school, saving districts money.

The arguments against: When Christie vetoed the task-force bill last year, he noted that three-quarters of districts already offer full-day kindergarten and said the program should be a local choice rather than a mandate. He said the state’s Division of Early Childhood Education already helps districts that want to create full-day programs and call the proposed panel redundant.

The New Jersey Child Care Association, which represents private childcare facilities, has raised a number of objections. One is the potential cost, given the state’s pension crisis and other obligations. The NJCCA also said many private providers, religious schools, and charter schools already offer full-day kindergarten and would suffer from an expansion. The organization criticizes the state teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, for supporting an initiative that would swell its ranks with more unionized kindergarten teachers.

Some parents say a full day is too long for their young children, while some school district officials question the usefulness of keeping students in class for the extra hours. Some districts stagger their session lengths, for example offering three full days and two half days per week.

The legislation: The bill passed Friday, A-447, would appoint a 21-member task force to study implementing full-day preschool. The sponsors are Caputo and Assembly members Mila Jasey (D-Essex), Bettylou Decroce (R-Morris), and Troy Singleton (D-Burlington).

The task-force members would include the commissioner of education, four legislative appointees, and 16 gubernatorial appointees, including superintendents, principals, teachers, a parent, and representatives of teachers unions, school boards and school administrators. They would review research on full-day kindergarten, study the staffing, space, funding, and curriculum needs, and consult with parents and teachers.

A few bills in recent years proposed lowering the age of compulsory school attendance to 5 years old and requiring all districts to offer kindergarten. Two such bills offered last year did not move beyond the Assembly education committee.

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