Volume 3 Issue 3

Clearing Up the Kindergarten Fog— Free for All or Free Based on Need?

by Scott Jacob

For the last couple of years in Jeffco, all students at 40 district-run elementary schools have received free full-day kindergarten. According to district policy, all families with students enrolled at all other district-run schools that offered full-day kindergarten were responsible for the monthly fee. Even low-income families that qualified for free and reduced lunch were required to pay. There have been a handful of Jeffco elementary schools at which full-day kindergarten was not available at all. 

That meant that families in the 40 schools could receive free full-day kindergarten even though they did not qualify for free and reduced lunch. In some schools, more than half of students who received the free services did not come from low-income families. 

At the same time, many families that qualified for free and reduced lunch and happened to live in the boundaries of a neighborhood school that did not offer free full-day kindergarten didn’t get it free. They were either responsible for getting their kindergarten student to another school where they could receive it for free, or they stayed at their neighborhood school and had to pay. 

In 2014, when the school board was asked to expand the number of schools that offered free full-day kindergarten to all students— which would have increased an already $4 million investment by another $600,000 each year— the board asked some hard questions: 
1) What are the student achievement differences at schools that offered free full-day kindergarten?
2) How is it fair that some students whose families qualified for free and reduced lunch were not able to attend free full-day kindergarten in their neighborhoods?
3) Is there a fairer way to allocate resources that will help improve student achievement?

District staff came back with achievement data that showed little consistency in programming across the 40 free full-day kindergarten schools, and no consistent impact on student achievement. They also confirmed many families whose students qualified for free and reduced lunch were not getting access or had to pick a school outside of their neighborhood. The board then directed staff to find a way to provide free full-day kindergarten access to all low-income students and to provide programs that increase student achievement. 

Built into the new student-based allocations for every elementary school are the funds to support free full-day kindergarten for all students whose families qualify for free and reduced lunch. The allocation excludes the two district-run schools in Jeffco that only offer half-day kindergarten.

Starting this year, every school that offers full-day kindergarten now offers it free for all students whose families qualify for free and reduced lunch. Some are complaining that a handful of the 40 schools that formerly offered free full-day kindergarten to all students in the past are now offering it only to low-income families. This arrangement is the result of decisions made at the local schools. 

This is an example of how expanding local control works. Schools acquire input from staff, parents, the principal, and the community, and may decide to prioritize spending differently, just like households do. Some schools prioritized lower class sizes, more teacher librarian hours, or adding math or reading specialists over free full-day kindergarten for all. 

Some are saying Jeffco should offer free full-day kindergarten for all district students regardless of family income. This would require cuts from other services which no one has discussed. In addition, the new local flexibility is getting very positive feedback. Teachers and parents like the ability to make decisions that are best for their students.