SEATTLE — Thanks to pressure from a successful school funding lawsuit against Washington state, and a $50 million investment by the state Legislature, twice as many children will be in state-paid full-day kindergarten this fall.
The change affects kids in 269 schools in 38 of the state's 39 counties. The new money is being distributed according to poverty rates, so schools with the most kids who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch are the first to get money for free all-day kindergarten.
With the money aimed at specific schools, only some of the students in most districts will benefit from the new state dollars. But some districts are also using local dollars to expand free, full-day kindergarten for all kids.
Other districts have gone in the opposite direction — turning away the state money because they don't have enough room for more classes or the money to buy portable classrooms.
In fall 2012, 22 percent of the state's kindergarteners were in all-day sessions paid for by the state of Washington. This fall, 44 percent will get the extra schooling without having to pay tuition. The Legislature will need to find another $100 million or so by fall 2017 to get every kindergartener in free all-day school.
Washington adopted the goal of full-day kindergarten for all in 2006, but six years later the Washington Supreme Court gave lawmakers a push toward fulfilling that promise by giving them a deadline.
Kindergarten is just one of the reforms pinpointed in the Supreme Court's January 2012 McCleary decision. The result of the lawsuit brought by school districts, teachers, parents and community groups also calls for smaller class sizes in early grades, state-funded pupil transportation, a stable source of school dollars from the state, and less reliance on local levies to pay the costs of basic education.
Vancouver Public Schools was happy to get more state money to support its focus on early education.
Vancouver has 21 elementary schools. Fourteen will have state-funded full-day kindergarten classes this year, and the rest will be paid for by local dollars. That's more than triple the full-day kindergarten classrooms offered last fall.
“Families are thrilled,” said Marianne Thompson, executive director of teaching and learning for the district's elementary grades.
All-day kindergarten helps cement early literacy skills and helps every kid make the progress needed to reach state benchmarks for literacy and math by third grade, Thompson said.
“Time is the variable,” between kids who make the expected academic progress and those who don't, Thompson said. The district has adopted another program to boost kindergarten seat time — a boot camp for eligible kids for up to 17 days before school begins.
The program started last year with a third of kindergarteners. This year every student will be invited to get some school exposure before kindergarten begins.
For two and a half hours a day, students take a break from summer and learn the rules of school while working on vocabulary, letter and sound recognition, and math concepts.
Thompson said both programs help level the playing field for kids who have not had an educational preschool experience, which Thompson describes as the difference between a vocabulary of about 3,000 words and a vocabulary of 20,000 words.
Because of overcrowding, the Mukilteo School District, just southwest of Everett, was forced to take a different approach this fall.
Mukilteo turned down state money because the district didn't have the room for more classes and instead is exploring the possibility of a bond election to pay for construction of more elementary classrooms.
District spokesman Andy Muntz said growing enrollment plus full-day kindergarten and the state goal of reduced class sizes in the early grades would require Mukilteo to add an estimated 85 more classrooms, or about three and a half new schools.
Muntz doubts that voters would support that much new construction.
“That just won't happen,” he said. “Meanwhile our enrollment will keep growing.”