By Paul Maryniak

As the state Legislature begins a new session, funding for all-day kindergarten appears to be unlikely as conservative Republicans raise questions about its value and the absence of standards.

But both Gilbert Public Schools and Higley Unified School District are adamant about its benefits and are continuing to provide it free to parents.

Higley currently has 916 students in kindergarten at a cost of approximately $2,510,250. With normal half-day state reimbursement, the district is required to cover the balance of approximately $1,549,757, said spokeswoman Michelle Reese. The district has about 39 full-time kindergarten teacher positions.

“The research is strong that students who attend full-day as opposed to a half-day kindergarten program outperform their peers with their academic achievement and growth. Our students consistently perform at the top of the state, and we believe the full-day kindergarten experience is part of this success,” said Higley Assistant Superintendent Warren Shillingburg.

Gilbert Public Schools provides all-day K to 2,129 children, while 19 are enrolled in one half-day class that’s stationed at Neely Traditional Academy.

The half-day option “will likely continue…if there is enough demand to fill one classroom,” said GPS Superintendent Christina Kishimoto.

Kyrene School District also gives parents a half-day option, but the overwhelming number of children are in all-day programs—a sign that parents vastly prefer the all-day version, said Superintendent Jan Vesely.

Noting that only six parents opted for half-day kindergarten while 1,570 enrolled in the all-day program this year, Vesely added, “Clearly our community understands the importance of early childhood education. Parents want this kind of education for their young children.”

Kishimoto agrees.

“The learning standards for kindergarten readiness and subsequently for first grade readiness have become more rigorous in the past 14 or so years,” Kishimoto said. “Full-day K is so important for early reading success and readiness for Grade 1 learning standards.”

GPS covers the difference between state reimbursement for half-day kindergarten and the cost of full day through its operating budget.

All-day K has been a political football in Arizona for nearly a decade even as evidence grows of its importance in early education.

Former Gov. Janet Napolitano pushed through state funding in 2007, but the Republican Legislature in 2010 terminated it, deciding to pay only for a half-day program.

Numerous school districts in the state have held budget override elections since then to get voter approval for local funding of all-day K.

Michael Cowan, superintendent of Mesa Public Schools, the state’s largest district, echoed GPS and Higley school officials in discussing the impact of all-day K.

“Without additional classroom time for kindergarten under the direction of a master educator, many children will not be afforded adequate time to build foundational learning competencies in reading, writing and mathematics,” said Cowan.

Terry Locke, spokesman for Chandler Unified School District, concurred.

“We find all-day kindergarten to be vital,” Locke said. “Today’s kindergarten standards have more rigor than in the past. Only 30 percent of our students starting kindergarten come to us with preschool experience. The extra time helps ensure students get off to a strong start to their school experience and have success in future years.”

Like GPS, Mesa and Chandler make up the remaining cost of all-day K through their maintenance and operations budgets.

“Full-day kindergarten is an important and needed investment,” said Cowan, whose district has 4,500 full-day kindergartners. “Less time is needed to catch up academically deficient students, allowing teachers to focus on grade-level curriculum.”

Kyrene voters approved an override that covers 15 percent of the district’s cost.

Higley voters also approved an override.

“The approved override is truly appreciated because with limited resources, the district may not have been able to continue to offer the full day kindergarten,” said Gary Holland, Higley director of finance.

Although there were hopes that voters’ overwhelming approval of Proposition 123 last year would lead to a restoration of state funding for all-day kindergarten, Republican legislative leaders are already complaining that the state cannot afford its $218-million-a-year price tag.

Political observers say that unless the governor throws his support behind it, all-day kindergarten will likely be a non-starter in budget talks next year.

The broad coalition of education and business leaders wants all-day K restored, along with another $440 million in restored funding for building maintenance, utility payments and teacher development.

Arizona and 33 other states require only half-day kindergarten, while 11 make all-day K mandatory. The rest have no kindergarten mandates.

Republican leaders in the Legislature didn’t wait long after the Nov. 8 election to begin signaling their feelings about all-day kindergarten.

Incoming House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, a Republican whose district covers part of Gilbert and Chandler, told the Arizona Tax Research Association last month that the state not only couldn’t afford it, but that its effectiveness seemed in doubt.

“There was research indicating there was a bump in student achievement early on because of full-day kindergarten,” Mesnard said. “But then it sort of diminished or went away entirely later on. So, I think we’re going to have to revisit some of that research to see is this an effective use of our dollars.”

Incoming Senate President Steve Yarbrough, another Gilbert-Chandler Republican, told the same organization that while all-day K and several other education programs are “all potentially worthy,” the state has no money to pay for them.

Some education and business leaders spoke about the benefits of setting academic standards for all-day K at an Arizona Board of Education meeting earlier this fall.

Because there are no learning standards past the required 2 1/2 hours, not all schools set high academic expectations, said state Sen. Steve Smith, a Republican from Pima County. He said some constituents who paid for full-day kindergarten were unhappy.

“They played games. It was effectively babysitting time,” Smith said. “They did not have the same teacher as they did the first half of the day.”

“For me as a parent, to want to put my child in all-day K, there had to be some sort of actual achievement and learning going on the second half of the day,” Smith said.

Lisa Fink, a parent and board president of Choice Academies charter schools, told the Arizona education board full-day kindergarten is a waste.

She cited a 2014 study by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy that concluded kindergarteners in Washington did not benefit from a daylong program, given its cost.

Children “need that play time. They need naps,” Fink said. “All-day kindergarten is a recurring fad; it is not the solution.”

Vesely and Kyrene board member John King, a Republican, said Kyrene abounds in proof of all-day kindergarten’s positive impact on young children’s educational development.

“The days of naps and cookies in kindergarten are long gone,” Vesely said. “Kindergartners are expected to add and subtract numbers up to 10, count to 100 by ones and 10s; spell simple words phonetically; and describe measurable attributes of objects such as length and weight. They also are expected to distinguish the shades of meaning among verbs.”

“They also are expected to be able to write at least three complete sentences by the end of the school year—which means they must also know how to read,” she continued. “The research is clear about the benefits of full-day kindergarten.”

She said one study showed “children enrolled in full-day kindergarten performed better in math and reading than their half-day counterparts.”

A conservative himself, King also differs with his fellow Republicans in the Legislature.

“The most fundamental learning a child at an early age can have is how to read and function socially,” he said. “The value of all-day kindergarten is that it stresses the value of reading and makes for greater success as students.”

King believes all-day kindergarten explains why no Kyrene third grader failed to meet the new state requirement this year that forced districts to hold back third graders who could not meet reading standards.

Only five third graders were in danger of not advancing to fourth grade because of those reading requirements, he said. But the district worked with them over the summer to ensure they could pass.

“We attribute that to the fact we can get to them early in their life cycle,” he said.

Vesely noted, “There are limits to what can be accomplished in a half day of instruction. A half day allows less time for teachers to incorporate inquiry-led instruction, exploration and hands-on activities into their lesson plans—all important learning opportunities.”

Moreover, she said, children in half-day kindergarten “have less time to be with teachers who know how to help them develop and practice social-emotional skills such as understanding feelings, managing emotions, regulating behavior and developing empathy.”

– Cronkite News and Capitol Media Services contributed to this report.