In Defense of Full-Day K

One of the topics of discussion at the recent Arizona State Board of Education was the need for full day kindergarten. The minutes of the meeting report that Phil Francis, CEO of Petsmart, “gave a presentation about the importance of full day kindergarten as a grade and the efforts to bring this to Arizona. The intention of the group, comprised of business leaders, legislators and parents, is to make kindergarten a grade with rigor, requirements, accountability and benchmarks.” Arizona State Senator Steve Smith also spoke at the meeting “as a parent and as a legislator in support of this initiative.” He said “his goal is to first find out if this is something that Arizona wants and then the legislature will find money during the budget process.”

I have several issues with both their comments. First of all, there is no research data that shows kindergarten should be “a grade with rigor, requirements, accountability and benchmarks.” In fact, Finland (generally considered the best school system in the world), does not even start their children in school until they are seven years old. Numerous studies show young children need time to play and that putting too much pressure on our youngest students may cause them to miss out on other critical development and lose a love of learning.

Secondly, I am suspect whenever Senator Steve Smith appears to support something good for public education. According to the Friends of ASBA (Arizona School Boards Association) annual legislator report card, Smith only voted for our district schools and their students half of the time last year and that was better than previous years. He has consistently been a proponent of school choice and the diversion of taxpayer public education monies to private and religious schools via vouchers. Call me cynical, but if Smith is in favor of restoring the funding to full day kindergarten, there’s profit to be made by commercial schools. Further Empowerment Scholarship Account (vouchers) expansion anyone?

The meeting minutes also stated that Lisa Fink, founder of Adams Traditional Academy, spoke against the initiative saying that “many of the gains of full day k are gone by the second grade. I’m not sure what research Fink is using, but I can point to plenty that shows her conclusion is incorrect. A 2004 National Center for Education Statistics longitudinal study showed a 32 percent gain in reading and 22 percent gain in math achievement for kindergarten students in full-day programs versus half-day. A more recent study (2014) showed a sizable learning advantage for full-day students. For Hispanic full-day kindergarteners, the advantage was nearly twice that of Hispanic half-day students. In a study of over 17,000 students in Philadelphia, researchers found that “by the time they reached the third and fourth grades, former full-day kindergarteners were… 26 percent more likely than graduates of half-day programs—to have made it there without having repeated a grade.”  The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) Center says the advantages of full-day kindergarten include: higher long-term achievement, fewer grade retentions, higher self-esteem and independence, and greater creativity.

Where the gains have been less than obvious, it is likely due to outside factors. In 2008, another early childhood longitudinal study found that full-day students were statistically more likely to live below the poverty line and be of low birth weight and have unmarried parents who did not pursue education beyond high school. That is why researchers such as Chloe Gibbs at the University of Virginia, used students in her 2014 study who had a lottery to allocate full-day kindergarten slots, thus ensuring a random sampling. She concluded that full-day kindergarten produces greater learning gains per dollar spent than other well know early education interventions (such as Head Start and class size reductions.) It not only ensured all students did better, it also closed the literacy achievement gap between Hispanic and other students by 70 percent. This is important for several reasons. First of all, Hispanics are now the majority/minority in our Arizona’s district schools. Secondly, their achievement levels on the latest AzMERIT tests are lower than that of their white counterparts. Thirdly, Dr. Rottweiler, reminded the Board that “the same year we created move on when reading to increase literacy scores, we cut the funding to full day kindergarten.” In other words, at the same time the Legislature cut funding for full-day kindergarten, they enacted a law to hold students back who couldn’t read adequately by the third grade. Talk about tying the students legs together and then asking them to run….

Sometimes though, “fadeout” (an apparent loss of gains as the student progresses through school) does occur. Studies documenting the phenomenon though, “often show better adult outcomes—better health, higher earnings, etc.,” than for students who didn’t have the full-day kindergarten experience. Additionally, there is no consistency across states for kindergarten programs. Quality matters and it really matters with our youngest students.  The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) Center says the advantages of full-day kindergarten include: higher long-term achievement, fewer grade retentions, higher self-esteem and independence, and greater creativity.

One advantage of half-day kindergarten that matters to the Arizona Legislature is undoubtedly the fact that it costs less; $218 million less in 2010. Of course, the program cuts may not have been just about offsetting the state’s revenue shortfall. Cutting full-day kindergarten forced a choice on districts to either a) just offer half-day or b) trim other services (increase class sizes, eliminating art or music, cutting athletic directors) to pay for it. No matter which decision districts made, it hurt their ability to be fully successful. Not offering full-day kindergarten meant they might lose potential students who would likely have stayed through graduation. Since districts are funded on a per-student formula, this translates into lost funding. And I know there are those thinking “if the kid leaves, the cost of educating him leaves as well, so what’s the problem?” The problem is that districts have numerous fixed costs that continue to exist in full whether or not students attrit out (or never come in.) These include costs such as that for utilities, facility and grounds maintenance, and personnel.

Fortunately, there were others at the Board meeting who “get it.” Janiene Marlow, H.R. Director at Cave Creek USD, reiterated to the Board that “Full Day K programs are crucial.” Channel Powe, Balsz Elementary School District Board Member, also testified in support of full day kindergarten. Jack Smith, Yavapai County Board of Supervisors, spoke as a parent and discussed how kindergarten spring-boarded his children to success.

Of course, a move back to full-day kindergarten will cost significant monies. Kelley Murphy, from the Arizona Community Education Association (AZECA), stressed that in order to implement this in statute there must be a designated funding source. Remember that in his comments at the meeting, Senator Smith said, “the legislature will find money during the budget process.” I can guarantee you he is not talking about raising additional revenue to fund full-day kindergarten. I’m guessing he means the legislature will look at the K-12 budget to see what they can cut to fund it. Keep in mind that even after the Prop. 123 monies, Arizona is still 48th in the nation in K-12 per-pupil funding. Arizona’s GOP-led legislature is just not concerned and/or focused on truly improving the educational outcomes for the 80-plus percent of Arizonan students that attend our district schools. That’s why I’m only partially excited about the potential restoration of funding for full-day kindergarten, even though I think it is critical. It, like any other initiative we pursue in K-12 education, is not a silver bullet. It must be pursued as part of a comprehensive educational system. It must also be funded to a level that will help ensure a quality program. Junk in after all, produces junk out.

The hard truth is that as long as we accept mediocre support for our district schools, they will have a very hard time producing stellar results. The fact that some districts are excelling at the highest levels and most others are continuing to improve, is a testimony to the underpaid and undervalued but totally dedicated educational professionals in 230 community school districts around the state. They do it because they love the kids. Both they and the kids deserve much better.

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Remember in November

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) just released a new report on states’ investments in their public schools. “Public investment in K-12 schools – crucial for communities to thrive and the U.S. economy to offer broad opportunity – has declined dramatically in a number of states over the last decade” reports the CBPP. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Arizona ranks 15th in the nation for the number of students enrolled in public K-12 schools, but 48th in per pupil spending, with state funding per pupil down 36.6%. In state dollars alone (per pupil), Arizona only provided 56.5% of the national average according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Public Education Finances: 2014 report released this year.

Greatly exacerbating the situation (especially moving forward) is the fact that Arizona is one of the five states having “enacted income tax rate cuts costing tens or hundreds of millions of dollars each year rather than restore education funding.” Nationwide, states made up 45% of their budget shortfalls between 2008 and 2012 with spending cuts and only 16% with taxes and fees. Governor Ducey has promised to cut income tax every year he is in office, continuing two decades of tax cuts that that will cost the state’s 2016 general fund $4 billion in revenue. He and the Arizona Legislature may blame the recession on Arizona’s budget woes, but “more than 90% of the decline in revenue resulted from tax reductions…the remainder is due to the recession. Adding to the problem is that the Federal education aid programs shrunk at the same time. Those cuts are critical given that one in four of Arizona’s children live in poverty and Federal assistance for high-poverty schools is down 8.3% since 2010. Federal spending for the education of disabled students is also down by 6.4%.

It should be no surprise, that Arizona has a huge teacher shortage and in fact, is ranked the third worst state in the nation to be a teacher. Arizona’s district schools started the school year with 2,041 teacher vacancies and four weeks into the school year 25 percent of those remained vacant and 22 percent more were filled by individuals not meeting standard teacher requirements. The CBPP reports, “While the number of public K-12 teachers and other school workers [across the nation] has fallen by 221,000 since 2008, the number of students has risen by 1,120,000. This translates to a national average for student-to-teacher ratio of 16:1 while Arizona’s is almost 23:1. In 2014, Arizona ranked fifth in the nation in annual population increase while fewer students were enrolling in teacher preparation programs and 23% of Arizona’s teachers will be eligible to retire by 2019. We are facing a crisis largely created by state lawmakers where districts are forced to make up for major state funding cuts by deleting positions; underpaying teachers; cutting back on professional development; combining classrooms; and using long-term, less-qualified substitutes. Research shows teacher quality is the most important school-based determinant of student success. For real achievement gains, recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers must be at the forefront of education policy, along with the funding that supports it.

Quality preschool and full-day kindergarten have been shown critical to improved outcomes throughout a child’s school years and life beyond, especially for those lower on the socio-economic scale. Arizona however, funds only half-day kindergarten and provides no support for preschool. One study of 15,000 children born between 1955 and 1985 showed that poor children whose schools received a 10% increase in per-pupil spending before they started school and maintained that increase over the 12 years of the students’ schooling, were 10% more likely to graduate from high school. They also were shown to have 10% in higher earnings and were 6% less likely to be poor as adults.

Proposition 123 provided $173 million per year through FY 2025, but the state is still the fifth highest in cuts (down 12.8%) in state-provided per pupil funding through 2017. Keep in mind please that Proposition 123 monies were largely provided by raiding the state trust lands fund, which exists to support stable financial resources for schools. It wasn’t new money, but funding already mandated by the people and adjudicated by the courts and then, it was only 70% of what was actually owed. Even so, it did provide a boost to district funding which is critical given that Arizona is one of roughly half of the states providing less per pupil than in 2008 and one of the only seven where the cuts are 10 percent or more. In fact, even with the Proposition 123 infusion, the CBPP reports that Arizona had a -.08% change in state formula funding per pupil. So, while one hand giveth (kind of), the other hand taketh away.

Of course, per-pupil funding isn’t the only kind of funding cut from our district budgets. Capital spending, that which is used to build new schools, renovate and expand facilities, and equip schools with more modern technologies, is also way down. Spending for capital requirements was down 37% across the nation between 2008 and 2014. In Arizona, the FY 2016 budget included cuts of $113,457,200 in district additional assistance (DAA) dollars (about $135 per student), when added to the prior year DAA cuts, equates to a total reduction of these funds by 83%. DAA monies are used for a combination of soft capital costs (classroom materials and supplies) and capital funding. As just one example, the State Facilities Board provided only two cents of every dollar (2%) of the statewide need for renovations and repairs between 2008 and 2012.

The good news is that almost three-fourths of Arizona voters say the state is spending too little on our K-12 public school students. Hopefully, you are one of them and you’ve already voted for pro-district education candidates, not those in favor of diverting taxpayer dollars to fund commercial schools. I say this not as a school choice “hater” (I do believe school choice has its place, it just shouldn’t be first place), but as a pure practical matter. Over 80% of Arizona’s students attend district schools and they deserve to have the vast majority of our resources and attention dedicated to ensure they succeed. We all need them to succeed not just because it is the right thing to do, but also because whether they are well educated or not, they are the future of our communities, our state and our nation. For all of us and those who come after us, I wish for a very bright future.

 

We need leaders, not politicians

AZ Senate President Andy Biggs claims more funding doesn’t produce better educational outcomes and points to Washington D.C. as proof. Wow, way to deflect Andy. The truth is, places with high poverty, crime and unemployment often require high per pupil funding to try to deal with these various intersecting complications. We have those places in Arizona too. But, I’m not sure how a subpar return on investment in D.C. education excuses Arizona’s ranking for the lowest per pupil funding in the nation. I also don’t buy that more funding doesn’t make a difference.

Bruce D. Baker, a professor in the Department of Educational Theory, Policy, and Administration in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University, says we know the strategies that help close achievement gaps: lower class sizes, a broad curriculum, and the attraction and retention of highly qualified teachers. But, he says, “we can’t get there without stable, adequate, and equitable funding” and claims that approach to closing achievement gaps is “one we’ve never really tried.”[i] Too often, he says, promising efforts are abandoned after the next election cycle. Great sounding campaign promises after all, are much easier to make than real results are to deliver.

Governor Ducey and other Arizona GOP leadership claim they have solutions to provide additional education funding. But, tax increases are definitely not among them. Governor Ducey wants to take money from the sell of state trust lands to generate about $300 more per child. His plan, if approved by voters in 2016, would begin to help in 2017, but only for ten years and some fear it will draw down the trust land monies available for future use. Biggs and House Speaker David Gowan propose asking voters to shift funds from early childhood education programs to K-12 education. They claim that could generate an additional $500 per student on top of the $4,300 the state now provides.[ii]

I am open to learning more about Governor Ducey’s idea, but on the surface it seems like a quick fix that we’ll have to pay for over the long term. Tucson education blogger David Safier points out that Ducey’s roadmap for additional education funding has numerous winding roads with plenty of roadblocks built in.[iii] Let’s just say I don’t plan to hold my breath waiting for this idea to come to fruition. But, you have to admit; it does kind of make the Governor look like he really cares about helping Arizona’s K-12 school children.

As for shifting money from early childhood education programs to K-12, that is a dead on arrival idea for me. Arizona has already cut kindergarten funding in half requiring school districts to fund the other half “out of hide” if they want to provide full-day programs. The state provides zero funding for preschool, despite all the evident that shows it is absolutely critical to improving educational outcomes and success in life. Preschool has been shown results in adults with better jobs, less drug abuse and fewer arrests.[iv] In fact, children who attend preschool, are almost 50 percent less likely to end up in jail or prison by age 40. One researcher at the University of Minnesota said the average cost per child for 18 months of preschool in 2011 was $9,000, but his cost-benefit analysis suggested that led to at least $90,000 in benefits per child in terms of increased earnings, tax revenue, less criminal behavior, reduced mental health costs and other measures.[v] Or, put another way, when it comes to funding preschool, you can pay me now, or pay me later. And believe me, the interest is pretty steep.

As for the idea of going back to the voters to approve either of these plans, let’s just review recent history. The Arizona Legislature referred Proposition to the voters in 2001. The voters approved the proposition and the inflation funding that went with it. The Legislature indicated they understood the voter mandate when they initially appropriated the required funding, but when the recession hit in 2008, they decided to opt out of that pesky little part of the law. Now, the courts have told the Legislature that may not opt out and yet…wait for it….the Legislature still refuses to comply. This, despite a voter mandate, despite court orders, and despite surplus revenue.

Mr. Biggs claims that increased funding is not the answer, and asks “how much is enough?” To answer his question, I say I’m not sure, “but I’ll know it when I see it.” Well, I don’t see it in a per pupil funding of $7,208 (from all sources) against a national average of $10,700. I don’t see it in our having made the highest cuts to per pupil funding since 2008. I don’t see it in our critical teacher shortage, and I don’t see it in facility maintenance and renewal fund that provided school districts only two percent of what were due from 2008 to 2013.[vi]

Finally, to Bigg’s claim that “some schools are excelling, doing an incredibly great job, even with current funding”, yes, our dedicated administrators and educators are doing all they can to do more with less. The situation reminds me of our military troops who would do whatever it took, with whatever they had, to accomplish the mission. Make no mistake, there is eventually a price to be paid. Just like a car can run for a long time without an oil change, problems will develop over time and eventually, the engine will seize up. In our Arizona public school districts, that price is now presenting itself in the form of a critical teacher shortage. With a counselor to student ratio of four times that recommended, it could also come in the form of more serious student behavioral incidents. These are just two examples, there are many more.

Governor Ducey and his GOP led Legislature continue to kick the can down the road while Arizona’s students (through the 6th grade) have never been in a fully funded classroom. Every year the funding is denied is one more year our students are not fully equipped to succeed. And if they aren’t fully equipped to succeed, neither is our state. Whether today’s K-12 students are ready or not, they will be leading tomorrow’s Arizona. Well, unless they had to move out of state to get a decent job because quality companies were too smart to relocate to a state that prioritizes private prisons over preschool. None of this is rocket science, we know what to do. The question is, do our elected leaders have the will to do the right thing and will we hold them to it? Maybe we should all remember this quote by James Freeman Clarke: “A politician thinks of the next election; a leader, the next generation.”

[i] http://educationvotes.nea.org/2015/08/25/5-unavoidable-truths-about-school-funding/?utm_source=EdVotes&utm_medium=email&utm_content=SchoolFunding&utm_campaign=082915EdVotesEmail

[ii] http://tucson.com/news/local/education/coalition-urges-arizona-to-use-budget-surplus-for-education/article_07e0b3d2-98b9-53b3-8221-99f9434c66c9.html

[iii] http://www.tucsonweekly.com/TheRange/archives/2015/09/03/ducey-i-choose-the-school-funding-plan-behind-door-number-two

[iv] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/06/10/preschool-better-jobs-arrests_n_875036.html

[v] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/06/10/preschool-better-jobs-arrests_n_875036.html

[vi] http://www.azcentral.com/news/articles/arizona-schools-funding-debated.html