Note: This is the fifth in Complete Colorado reporter Sherrie Peif’s series of “Know before you go” stories, breaking down the arguments presented by a group of Jefferson County residents seeking to recall three members of the Jefferson County Public Schools Board of Education. In this story, we report that statements about the board being unwilling to fund free full-day kindergarten are incorrect. Read the previous reports here: part one, part two, part three and part four.
For three members of the Jefferson County Public Schools Board of Education – Ken Witt, John Newkirk and Julie Williams – all kindergartners deserved the right to all-day kindergarten, not just those that could afford it.
So for the first time, all children eligible for free or reduced lunches (FRL) get that chance. Jeffco students living in poverty are now offered free full-day kindergarten at all but two schools in the district. Colorado funds free half-day kindergarten for all children, but full day kindergarten is the responsibility of individual districts if they have the funding.
According to the district’s nutrition office, of the 5,817 kindergarten students in Jeffco last year, there were 1,814 on FRL, or about 31 percent. This year, the percentage increased to slightly more than 33 percent, with 1,861 of the 5,576 kindergartners on FRL. It will not be known how many students are taking advantage of full-day K, however, until the annual October student count is complete. Last year 4,660 of the 5,817 kindergarten students were enrolled in full-day programs, according to the Colorado Department of Education’s website.
Students who don’t qualify for free or reduced lunches are sometimes still able to enroll in full-day kindergarten for a small fee. In some cases, these students can attend full-day kindergarten at no cost. However, this depends on a how a local school has chosen to administer its kindergarten program and manage the associated funding.
Students in the two schools that do not have all-day kindergarten can open enroll into a school that does if the school has the available slots.
Recall supporters argue the board majority refused to invest $600,000 in the district’s full-day kindergarten program in 2014. However, the board majority argues they didn’t have to invest new money because they found a fairer way to offer it without the added investment: student-based budgeting.
Student-based budgeting redirects more decisions about what students need –in this case all-day kindergarten – to principals and school communities.
“It is the best thing ever,” Williams said during a recent interview, “because it goes from a top-down approach to — for the first time ever — our community members, our parents, our teachers, our principals deciding how money should be spent in their building.”
Until this year, only those students who attended schools with a high percentage of free and reduced lunch recipients were afforded the opportunity to attend free full-day kindergarten. The district decided which schools would offer the program based on Title I funding, which is federal grant money that helps educate the low-income students.
However, students attending Jeffco schools prior to this year who did not qualify for free or reduced lunches could also attend the full-day kindergarten if their school offered it. If the school received funding from the district, it was free for all. If it did not, parents paid for it.
All students in district schools where the FRL percentage was not high enough for the district to fund the program were charged for the program regardless of family income.
This year, the board’s reform members fought for student-based budgeting, changing the way free full-day kindergarten is handled and making it available to all FRL students.
Contrary to the standard approach where money is distributed to schools based on programs and staffing, student-based budgeting distributes money based on the number of enrolled students at each school, and each student receives a specific amount based on their need. For example at-risk learners – such as English language learners or students qualified for free and reduced lunch – get additional money to follow them to their school than the non-at-risk student. That allows the school to develop programs specific to the needs of those students.
Simply put, it empowers principals to make decisions on programs and other expenditures based on the need of the students in their buildings and not a one-sized-fits-all plan administered by the district office.
Because of that, all but two schools in Jeffco – Coal Creek and Red Rocks – now offer full-day kindergarten.
According to Terry Elliott, the Jeffco chief school effectiveness officer, even those two schools offer an enrichment program that essentially provides full-day kindergarten, though it is not technically considered as such.
Also, some schools are choosing to use their student funding to offer all-day kindergarten to all their students for free, regardless of free and reduced lunch status.
“All full-day kindergartens are open to all students,” Elliott said in an email. “The difference this year, is that if you qualify for free and reduced lunch, at any school, you will be provided access to the FDK at no cost to the family. If you do not qualify for FRL, you will be required to pay the fee if the school has a fee. … Some schools have chosen to use general funds to offer Free FDK programs— (it’s) a local decision.”