FRANKFORT, Ky. – The state’s education department wants state-funded full-day kindergarten.
Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis told lawmakers Tuesday that he’ll be pushing for the funding during the next budget year.
Currently, Kentucky only provides funding for half-day Kindergarten, while most schools throughout the state pick up the tab for the rest of the day.
“Our first ask is for funding for full-day kindergarten,” Dr. Lewis told members of the Budget Review Subcommittee on Education. “We believe that’s a really critical first step. And I would argue full funding for full-day kindergarten should precede even consideration of full funding for full-day preschool or universal pre-school. I think we have to work from kindergarten on down.”
Only a few school districts in Kentucky do not currently offer full-day kindergarten. The Kentucky Department of Education wants to make that number zero.
“Obviously early childhood education, early learning is critically important to student’s development is critically important,” Lewis said after the hearing. “But we believe that first step, that first ask really has to be in shoring up funding to ensure all our kids have access to high-quality kindergarten all day long.”
But, that cost to fund full-day kindergarten isn’t cheap. It’s estimated it will be between $135-150 million annually. At a time when funding in Kentucky is tight, it’s a tough request for the General Assembly.
“It’s incumbent upon me as commissioner and as our department to make asks where we believe additional strategic investment can be really important toward improving learning in kids,” Lewis said. “For me not to ask even in recognizing that budgets are tight, I believe would be negligent on my part.”
Louisville Democrat Sen. Gerald Neal says it’s up to the General Assembly to prioritize what is important.
“It’s just one of those things we just got to do this, this is so fundamental,” Neal said. “What we’ve done is we’ve compromised this with all of the other challenges we have, but this is so fundamental, we’ve got to quit doing that.”
While there has been much talk about funding universal preschool in Kentucky that is not something Commissioner Lewis will be pursuing. Right now, the state only funds preschool for low income or developmentally delayed or disabled four-year-olds.
“I think the ask for full-day kindergarten and the funding that it would cost to fund full-day kindergarten is something we have to get really serious about now,” Lewis said. “Universal preschool, just being honest with you, in Kentucky is much farther down the road.”
That’s an area where Neal disagrees with Lewis; he believes that the state should also be looking to fund preschool for all Kentuckians.
“Should there not be a re-examination of how we do this?” Neal said. “So we can be sure we are providing comprehensive education particularly in the area of preschool and ensuring all-day kindergarten.”
Lewis says the issue goes beyond offering preschool to everyone. Currently, many children who are eligible to attend preschool through the state’s requirements are not enrolled.
“Our biggest challenge in public preschool to be frank with you is getting kids and families who are already eligible, already qualify for public preschool into high-quality learning environments,” Lewis said. “So we have to deal with that reality as well.”
While KDE will not be requesting for state-funded universal preschool if the state funds kindergarten, it could free up money from school districts to put toward that.
“If we were to fund full-day kindergarten that is going to free up a tremendous amount of money in these districts that they could put into other programs like early childhood, like school safety and other safety,” said Rep. James Tipton, R-Taylorsville.
This is has been on KDE’s agenda for several years but Lewis thinks it’s important to get the funding put through next year.
“The tough question is how in an environment where there are lots of really trough needs and lots of things that the General Assembly is trying to balance in terms of funding can we find some funding to invest here,” Lewis said. “I think it’s a critically important area.”
165 school districts are providing full-day kindergarten for the 2019-2020 school year.