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Full-day K, half a commitment

The Indiana Department of Education issued a news release today boasting of increased funding for full-day kindergarten. But make no mistake: Indiana still short-changes early education.

A total commitment to full-day kindergarten would mean that five-year-olds are counted the same as eight-year-olds or 12-year-olds: Not as half-day students granted an extra stipend, but as full-day students.

Instead, Indiana lawmakers chose to continue the charade of offering full-day kindergarten by supporting it with a grant. School districts that agreed not to charge families for full-day classes this year received an additional $2,400 per student to supplement the one-half per-student allocation provided for kindergarteners.

In Fort Wayne Community Schools, the state's largest public school district, the difference between the grant and the actual cost of full-day instruction amounts to $1.5 million. That's not small change, particularly given the growing drain on resources from school vouchers and charter schools.

But the real problem with the full-day grant is that it stands as a budget line-item that could be eliminated if state resources are scarce or an increasingly conservative legislature decides early education is a threat to families. Don't laugh -- there are plenty of Hoosiers fighting state-funded preschool for that very reason. Indiana law doesn't require school enrollment until age 7. Home-schoolers have no regulation beyond declaring themselves a home-school and reporting instructional hours.

State government's half-hearted commitment to early learning smacks up against its enthusiastic embrace of the new Common Core curriculum, however. A new report from the National Association for the Education of Young Children warns that students from half-day programs will be required to meet the same standards as their counterparts in full-day programs.

"Children enrolled in half-day kindergarten receive less instructional time, likely experience a narrowed curriculum, have less time for experimentation and exploration, and enjoy fewer opportunities for play," notes Education Week, " Many states and school districts already require a 90-minute uninterrupted reading block in elementary schools. It's likely that others may choose to adopt the 90-minute reading policy because of the demands of the common core. Focusing on early reading and language development is important, but in half-day kindergarten—which rarely lasts longer than three hours a day—that reading block would leave only about 90 minutes each day for deep learning in mathematics, science, social studies, and the arts, not to mention time for physical activity and socializing, which are so important to kindergartners' development."

Fortunately, Indianas school districts have almost unanimously embraced the value of full-day kindergarten and are finding the dollars to bridge the gap between state support and actual cost.

The Children's Defense Fund provides a helpful fact sheet on full-day kindergarten in Indiana. Note that total funding for this academic year increases from $81.9 million to $189.8 million.

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at kfrancisco@jg.net.

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