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In Pennsylvania, many children who had been getting excited about their first day of full-day kindergarten were disappointed when full-day kindergarten fell victim to state budget cuts. Massachusetts families in 80 school districts had to pay an average of $3,110 this year for their children to attend full-day kindergarten. Families in West Valley, Washington, got lucky. The original tuition for full-day kindergarten was reduced to $175 – $280 a month, depending on the family’s income. Meanwhile, children living in a handful of states with publicly-funded full-day kindergarten like Louisiana, North Carolina, and Mississippi enrolled at their schools the same way children in public schools across the country enroll in first grade—without parents having to pay for it.

Public education in America is supposed to be built on a foundation of equal access for all children. But access to full-day kindergarten is more like a game of chance in which the lottery of geography and income determine which children are the winners. While the American public generally thinks of public education as a kindergarten through grade 12 system and federal education reform says K-12, for many children full-day kindergarten is a missing half-step in the all important early learning continuum.

We know good full-day kindergarten works to help children achieve. Study after study has shown full-day kindergarten plays a vital role in children’s educational development, boosting cognitive learning, creative problem-solving, and social competence, and promoting positive school outcomes including higher academic achievement in later grades, faster gains on literacy and language measures, and better attendance through the primary grades. When offered in the context of an aligned, seamless continuum of early learning, expanding access to full-day kindergarten becomes a critical strategy for closing achievement gaps by third grade, the stage at which success in school depends upon a child’s ability to transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.”

Research comparing half-day and full-day kindergarten strongly suggests children benefit more from a full-day kindergarten. Full-day kindergartners are more prepared for school: they do better with the transition to first grade, show significant gains in school socialization, and are equipped with stronger learning skills. These children have enhanced social, emotional, and behavior development, and equally important, reduced retention and remediation rates.

Only ten states require by statute that school districts provide publicly-funded full-day kindergarten, 34 states require school districts to provide half-day kindergarten, and six states don’t require districts to provide any kindergarten. District of Columbia public schools offer full-day kindergarten for all children at no cost although not required by law. As the budget crisis has advanced across the country, many local school districts are cutting funding for full-day kindergarten, making the inequality worse. And in some school districts with full-day kindergarten, children are able to enroll only if their parents pay tuition for the half day not publicly funded, if they qualify for tuition assistance based on family income, or if the child is at risk of failing in school.

Unequal access to full-day kindergarten means many young children lose a critical opportunity to develop and strengthen foundational skills necessary for success in school and lifelong learning. Full-day kindergarten can no longer be considered an optional add-on or intervention program especially now that students are being held to new and more rigorous academic standards with the adoption of the Common Core Standards in 43 states and the District of Columbia and grade-level assessments of student mastery scheduled to begin in 2014. While these standards are consistent across states, the number of instructional hours varies dramatically from state to state and even from district to district within a state. Whether a child receives two and a half hours or six hours of kindergarten instruction a day, the expectation of mastery of core standards remains the same. Unless we fix this, some children will pay the price of too much to learn and too little time in which to learn it because states and school systems don’t provide the time and resources children need to meet and surpass common core standards.

All students in America must have a fair chance to meet and surpass standards so we must make their true “first grade,” kindergarten, equal in importance to grades one through 12. The Children’s Defense Fund’s Full-Day Kindergarten Campaign aims to bridge the gaps by working with educators and advocates in targeted states to expand access to and funding for full-day kindergarten; publishing reports and disseminating informational resources to raise awareness and support reform; building a national coalition to promote full-day kindergarten policy reforms; and advocating for federal incentives to support state efforts to expand access to full-day kindergarten. Join us and learn more about what is being provided to children in your district and state. We can’t keep leaving millions of children a half-step behind in school before they even get started.

Sign-up to receive CDF President Marian Wright Edelman’s weekly Child Watch Column.