Inequity in Ohio kindergarten program puts disadvantaged kids further behind

May 19, 2014 by

Doug Livingston –

The morning sun shines through the windows of Mrs. Postak’s kindergarten classroom at Riverview Elementary School in Munroe Falls, revealing thousands of colorful items, all designed to educate and delight the 17 children about to arrive.

Everyone will get a hug. That part of kindergarten education hasn’t changed. For the rest of the day, the education of the 5-year-olds will go in directions parents might never have imagined.

Students will read their favorite books, write in journals, count and maybe learn a touch of algebra.

“I think for a lot of parents it’s shocking to them that their kids will be writing multiple sentences in kindergarten,” Megan Postak said.

There is not a minute to waste.

The children are on a race to excel as Ohio applies high-stakes consequences to state tests. For today’s kindergartners, the big test is three years away. If they fail, it’s a black mark on the school system’s record — the kind of mark that can threaten an educator’s career.

Postak, named an outstanding educator by her school’s PTA, has half the time to prepare her students for the challenge because they attend school for only half of the day. That’s all the state requires.

At a disadvantage

Ohio is among 41 states with laws that require schools to provide only half-day kindergarten.

But educators, especially those who have seen the benefits of all-day kindergarten, value the extra time, especially for those who are disadvantaged.

“I saw a program where every student came to school all-day tuition free,” said Karen Moore, a former principal in Tallmadge, where all-day kindergarten is offered at no cost to parents. “The difference in academics for those kids was immense.”

Now the director of academic achievement at Stow-Munroe Falls Schools, Moore analyzes performance data as the state plans to hold back third-graders who don’t score well on a test this spring.

Moore expects 83 third-graders to struggle on that test. She’s not surprised that 70 percent of them attended only half-day kindergarten.

That’s about par for the district. Stow-Munroe Falls Schools charges $2,851 in tuition for parents who prefer all-day kindergarten for their children. The school subsidizes half that cost for poorer families.

It’s typical for schools in wealthier communities to ask parents to pay when the state doesn’t, even though they value and desire all-day kindergarten for all.

“We are working diligently in an effort to see if that’s something we can do in the future, if we can go the all-day kindergarten route,” said Green Superintendent Jeff Miller, who also links access to early childhood education to high-stakes tests. “The last thing I want is socioeconomics to come into play from a public schools standpoint.”

Parents who can afford the tuition may be surprised by the education their money buys.

But two-thirds of kindergarten parents in Stow, for instance, do not pay the tuition. And it’s not by choice that their children are denied all-day kindergarten.

“I have had parents in my office registering for kindergarten in tears because they did not have the money to pay for all-day kindergarten,” Moore said. “To me, whenever we have an unfair playing field where some kids have an opportunity and others do not, that’s where I find the difficulty … Economics should not stand in the way. I see so many needy families who cannot afford all-day kindergarten.”

Moore said that’s why it makes sense for the students, the teachers and the tests to offer tuition-free all-day kindergarten, a move the district is making this fall.

Tuition bill allowed

A dozen states, including Ohio, do not pay for all-day kindergarten. They do, however, allow schools to charge parents tuition.

When cash-strapped school districts sued the state in the late 1990s, arguing that Ohio’s system of funding education created opportunity gaps, unequal access to all-day kindergarten emphasized the disparity.

The legislature responded early with additional funding for schools in communities with concentrated poverty, among them Akron and Barberton.

The money could be used for all-day kindergarten, class-size reduction or school safety, though the state soon found that schools spent most of the extra cash on kindergarten. The money, and its requirement to expand kindergarten, later disappeared during the recession.

Meanwhile, suburban schools — which received no additional funding — began charging parents tuition. In 2007, the Ohio Supreme Court and the attorney general ruled that charging for a public service was unlawful.

So, the legislature created a law giving schools the right to charge tuition.

When state money set aside for kindergarten disappeared during the recession, so did the state’s responsibility to track which schools charge tuition and how much each collects from parents.

Throughout the legislative maneuvering, many school districts absorbed the cost of all-day kindergarten, even after the state skirted the responsibility of paying its share.

For lower-income communities, like Barberton, where 70 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunches, eliminating all-day kindergarten or charging parents tuition would likely fuel the learning gap between rich and poor families.

“It probably wouldn’t work,” said Barberton Superintendent Patti Cleary, who considered cutting all-day kindergarten to save money if a recent levy failed. “The top kids who don’t need it as much would be the ones who could afford it.”

Learning takes time

Until the fall, when Stow-Munroe Falls will make tuition-free kindergarten available to all, Postak will continue to get her students ready for a more demanding education in half the time.

“I think day-to-day, in half-day kindergarten, there is always a sense of urgency and rushing just because of the time limit we have with the kids,” she said.

Postak is confident that her “almost first-graders” are ready to advance. But she added that a little extra time would have helped reinforce concepts.

“I think standards are covered. But I think there isn’t time to let the kids take ownership of their learning,” Postak said. “We just learned measurement, and giving the kids a chance to go create something with measurement is what you don’t have time for in half-day. It’s almost like you learn it, and then you have to go on to the next thing.”

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