Despite a cash influx, smaller schools cite headwinds for full-day kindergarten

An inrush of early learning money is on its way to Idaho’s elementary schools — but several small districts and charters say they’re still gun-shy about using the funds to launch tuition-free, full-day kindergarten programs.

The Legislature siphoned an additional $46.6 million into statewide literacy, bringing the total from $26 million to $72 million. The money isn’t for full-day kindergarten per se, but lawmakers settled on the amount with that in mind. Districts can use the money on other things, such as tutors or after-school programs.

The forthcoming cash already enticed three of the state’s largest districts to make the jump to full-day, though those moves pose several logistical challenges.

Last week, leaders at nearly a dozen smaller districts and charters across Idaho — schools that don’t provide full-day kindergarten — referenced concerns about funding, staffing and lack of space.

Most Idaho elementary schools offer full-day kindergarten, though the state doesn’t directly fund it. Over 68% of Idaho’s schools offered it as of last year. Click here for more.

Payette School District Superintendent Robin Gilbert said the state’s funding formula is one hurdle. To receive a full single measure of state funding — a “support unit” as defined in Idaho code, or about $105,000 — a district must have at least 40 kindergartners attending class full time.

The threshold for first grade is 20 students.

The coming influx of literacy dollars sets schools up for a big one-time boost this fall, but districts like Payette, which enrolls around 1,300 students, won’t have enough kindergartners on any given year to get a full funding unit to cover things like a salary for a full-time kindergarten teacher.

Aberdeen district superintendent Jane Ward said that’s a sticking point in her East Idaho district of 699 kids.

“We believe all-day kindergarten would benefit the students greatly,” Ward told EdNews, adding that it’s “the chance of needing a new teacher and not having the room for it” that makes her hesitant.

There’s also uncertainty over how much of the $72 million districts will get because payments will be based, in part, on spring Idaho Reading Indicator scores. (More on bottom-line questions about the literacy boost and how lawmakers tied the money to test scores here.)

The unknowns spell the need to spend more time mulling full-day programs, several local leaders said.

“We are waiting to see how much extra funding we receive,” Ririe Superintendent Jeff Gee told EdNews.

Space presents another problem for several districts. New facilities can be tough to come by for Idaho schools, which must convince local property owners and voters to bankroll new construction and upgrades.

Because full-day programs mean more kindergartners in one location at the same time, that requires more space.

Of 10 half-day districts and charters that responded to an EdNews survey last week, five pegged space as a challenge.

Here’s a closer look at what districts and charters said.

  • Shelley district (2,446 students): “Facilities and funding” have been big barriers in the past, but the boost to literacy funding has a new optional full-day program in the works.
  • Idaho Science and Technology Charter School (292 students): A new program is in the works, thanks to the funding boost.
  • Idaho Virtual Academy (2,148 students): Still undecided, and reviewing potential funding for next school year.
  • Aberdeen (699 students): Still mulling a decision, and convening a committee to discuss challenges of funding and space.
  • West Side district (845): Undecided — pointed to funding challenges.
  • Payette district (1,329): No decision yet, referenced “proper funding.”
  • North Gem district (132 students): “Still looking into it,” said space was the “biggest challenge.”
  • The Academy Charter School (538 students): Still deciding and needs more time.
  • Post Falls district (6,190 students): Will provide full-day next school year; cited “lack of funding” as a past challenge.
  • Ririe district (731): Still deciding and “waiting to see how much extra funding we receive.”

More reading: Details of full-day vs. half-day kindergarten in the West Ada and Boise school districts

Devin Bodkin

Devin Bodkin

EdNews assistant editor and reporter Devin Bodkin is a former high school English teacher who specializes in stories about charter schools and educating students who live in poverty. He lives and works in East Idaho. Follow Devin on Twitter @dsbodkin. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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