When Ojeya Cruz Banks moved to Ohio from New Zealand several years ago, she was overwhelmed by the logistics of uprooting her life. But Cruz Banks, a Denison University professor and a single mom, who is also my neighbor and friend, was relieved to find a house next to a public elementary school. She assumed that she would be able to walk to pick up her daughter—a needed convenience given that she didn’t yet have a car. Unfortunately, when she went to register her daughter for kindergarten, she was met with an unpleasant surprise: The only available option was a half-day program that would bus students to a day-care center on the outskirts of town for the afternoon. The district did offer a limited number of full-day slots, but those had all been claimed in a lottery earlier that spring and came with a tuition cost. “I was like, ‘Cost me? What? Public school costs money here?’” she told me.
Many parents across the United States, like Cruz Banks, may assume that free, full-day kindergarten is a required part of the country’s public education system. I was one of them, until my youngest had to enter our district’s lottery several months ago. When he was assigned to the half-day program, I swung between alarm and frustration. This exasperation is understandable given that “K–12” is a typical shorthand for public school. But even though kindergarten has been housed in public elementary schools for decades, attendance is not required in most states, and many states adopt different laws and funding formulas for the grade.
The majority of U.S. schoolchildren do go to kindergarten, and 79 percent of those kids are enrolled in full-day programs. But this vital education is not guaranteed nationwide. The country’s kindergarten policies vary from state to state, district to district, and even within school systems themselves. At least 29 states—both red and blue—do not mandate that districts offer full-day kindergarten. And some families may not be able to afford the full-day option, even when it is offered. Although fees are not the norm, as of 2013, at least 12 states allowed schools to charge tuition for public kindergarten, typically several thousand dollars a year, though exactly how common the practice is within those states is unclear. Low-income students can qualify for financial assistance, but many middle-class families may still struggle to pay, effectively turning kindergarten enrollment into a class privilege.
Altogether, a sizable minority of children—including the one in five kids enrolled in half-day kindergarten, the full-day students forced to pay tuition, and the small number of children who don’t attend at all—aren’t able to freely access the education they deserve. In such cases, parents must scramble to either pay tuition or find child care amid a national shortage for the hours half-day school doesn’t cover. As happens far too often to families of young kids in America, they are on their own, left without societal support when their children are at their most vulnerable.
Kindergarten’s integration into American public schools happened gradually. It arrived in the 19th century as a privately funded educational venture. By the start of World War I, the grade had become part of all major city public-school districts, and by 1965, more than 2 million children across 40 states were enrolled. Most early kindergarten programs offered only half-day coverage, but in the past several decades, full-day programs have become more common. The grade got more attention in the early 2000s with the introduction of the No Child Left Behind Act and the standards-based reform movement, as states scrutinized their learning standards and curricula. During this time, experts pushed for kindergarten classrooms to incorporate a stronger instructional emphasis, in addition to the play and socialization they already provided, according to Rolf Grafwallner, the program director for early-childhood education at the Council of Chief State School Officers, an education nonprofit. The grade’s academics were revised once again during the Common Core State Standards Initiative. But despite the curricular improvements and high enrollments, the issues of tuition charges and inadequate half-day programs—perhaps kindergarten’s most fundamental failings—remained unresolved.
Today, the grade still inhabits a gray area between preschool and elementary school—not guaranteed, required, or fully funded in many states, but significant enough that childrens’ development suffers when it’s missing. For many students, the grade is their introduction to formal schooling. Curricula vary, but they typically cover the building blocks of core subjects such as reading and math, in addition to basic social, emotional, and motor skills. The importance of this education cannot be overstated. At age 5 and 6, children are at a crucial stage in brain development. Educators, advocates, researchers, and state officials largely agree that full-day programming is beneficial for children, both academically and socially. Studies have shown that kids enrolled in full-day offerings make greater advances in literacy than those enrolled in half-day ones. These gains are maintained for years.
Parents whose kids don’t get full-day slots are on their own to fill the learning gap. Anna Baker, a mom from Marshfield, Massachusetts, tried to address this for her daughter by arranging playdates and signing her up for piano lessons and academic-enrichment classes taught by retired teachers. “It was piecemeal and expensive, and I was frustrated because her peers were getting this extra experience, more art, more gym, all of the socializing for that age that most kids should have,” she told me. Still, Baker felt lucky. Some of her daughter’s friends could not have paid for the full-day option even if they’d gotten in, and they could not afford to supplement the free half-day program with extracurricular activities, as Baker had.
To Rachael Abell, the school-committee president in Beverly, Massachusetts—where, until 2018, full-day kindergarten cost $4,000 a year—this problem of access was a failure of conscience on the part of her district. “A budget is our moral document; this is what we believe in,” she told me. “Are we saying to our community, ‘If you can afford a public education, you can get one, and if you can’t, you can get the half day’?” She hated seeing parents coming in to ask about scholarships, or having to pull their children because they could no longer afford to pay. So she and the committee reduced tuition gradually, until they eliminated it completely in 2020.
When governments don’t guarantee adequate early-childhood education, the burden becomes “all internalized to the family,” Anna Thomas, a senior policy analyst at the childhood advocacy group Voices for Utah Children, told me. “All the stress, all the challenge, all the punishment for not making it work—families just take that on, especially moms.” This burden is unsustainable for many people. Half of U.S. families have two working parents, and 71 percent of mothers of children under 18 are in the labor force. Perhaps for this reason, policies that would expand full-day offerings seem popular among parents. In Utah for example, where only about one-third of children have access to a full-day program, 68 percent of voters support the expansion of full-day kindergarten, and up to 69 percent would accept a tax increase to facilitate it, according to a Voices for Utah Children survey.
The importance of guaranteeing universal free, full-day kindergarten has perhaps never been more obvious. The pandemic exposed the dire consequences of isolating families from care communities: Parents’ mental health plummeted, kids fell worryingly behind, and mothers left the workforce in staggering numbers. Kindergarten enrollments dropped to levels not seen since the 2000s, and public kindergartens lost 340,000 students from 2019 to 2020—a number that declining birth rates likely contributed to but cannot alone explain. And the U.S. doesn’t have ground to lose; according to a 2020 UNICEF report, America ranks near the bottom of developed countries on child wellness, which includes socialization and achievement in math and reading.
Economically, with food costs rising, inflation at historic highs, and gasoline prices spiking, American families need help—mine included. I recently learned that my son would be able to attend our school’s full-day program because someone else had declined their spot. The knowledge brought relief but also stress. I couldn’t turn down the learning, play, and socializing that the full-day option offered, but I knew that paying nearly $4,000 a year (not including aftercare fees) would mean having less to put toward the rising cost of living, medical debts, or an emergency fund. Although not a panacea for the child-care crisis or recent educational losses, establishing a nationwide free, full-day program would bring much-needed support to families across the country. It’s long overdue.