Utah public schools provide just 30% of their students access to full-day kindergarten compared to the rest of the nation, where 80% of students have access to full-day programs.

“That’s something that we should not be proud of,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson told members of the Utah Legislature’s Senate Education Committee on Friday.

Dickson’s comments came during debate on the latest version of HB193, sponsored by Rep. Steve Waldrip, R-Eden, which seeks more state funding to increase the number of Utah public schools that offer full-day kindergarten.

Friday evening, the legislature’s Executive Appropriations Committee voted to appropriate $12.2 million in ongoing funding for the initiative, which will keep the program moving forward but falls short of expanding the initiative statewide.

The proposal has been broadly supported by the Utah State Board of Education, the associations that represent school boards and superintendents, and child advocacy organizations for nearly a decade and incremental steps have been made, such as a state grant program that helps support optional extended kindergarten programs in some school districts.

Other districts have funded full-day programs using local funds and federal funding but want state support to ensure the effort is sustainable and can grow.

Earlier on Friday, Cade Douglas, superintendent of the Sevier County School District, told members of the Senate Education Committee that school districts across the state are eager to offer full-day kindergarten programs to families but they need more state help to make that happen. He described it as “the most important investment we could make for children and parents.”

Douglas said he’s been seeking expanded funding for the program from state lawmakers for more than a decade.

“Every time I come and present in any education committee, I always end by saying ‘Let’s fund optional all-day kindergarten,’” he said.

HB193, hit a rough patch Friday when the latest version of the legislation said state funding for the initiative would not supplant funding that schools currently offering extended-day kindergarten have dedicated to the program.

Washington County School District Superintendent Larry Bergeson said his school district has been a pioneer in offering extended-day kindergarten opportunities that have produced the data that supports further expansion of the program across the state.

“It’s a concern that here we are as a district that’s been proactive and pioneering this effort, which has taken a considerable amount of time and effort and now ... any district, not just ourselves, will be penalized if we’re not permitted to receive the funding that goes with this bill,” he said.

Senate Majority Whip Ann Millner, R-Ogden, acknowledged the stakeholders’ concerns with changes to the bill, noting that the Legislature’s appropriations process was nearing its end and language was amended to reflect those realities.

Kindergartners line up for lunch at Woodrow Wilson Elementary School in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 25, 2022. Legislators are debating the latest version of HB193, which seeks to provide more state funding to increase the number of Utah public schools that offer full-day kindergarten. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

She offered an amendment establishing that the initiative would not supplant ongoing federal funding, a change Millner said she hoped would “kind of bring the temperature down a little bit.” She offered her assurances to continue to work with Waldrip on other concerns but her remarks foreshadowed that full funding of the initiative likely wouldn’t happen.

“If we keep this as it’s written, we can’t fund it. It’s like a doubling, $46 million in the last two or three days before the budget is out. That just can’t happen. So this was trying to say, ‘Let’s find a way to keep it moving, keep growing it,’ and then figure out how to find a solution to this,” Millner said.

With the amendment and the sponsors’ assurances, the Senate Education Committee voted unanimously to send HB193 to the Senate with a favorable recommendation.

Kindergartner Gucci Carter eats lunch with his classmates at Woodrow Wilson Elementary School in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 25, 2022. Legislators are debating the latest version of SB193, which seeks to provide more state funding to increase the number of Utah public schools that offer full-day kindergarten. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Full-day kindergarten was a funding priority for Utah State Board of Education, which seeks to provide Utah families access to equitable, optional full-day kindergarten. The board’s request envisioned phasing in the initiative over three years to give schools time to recruit and hire teachers, find space in their buildings to accommodate full-day kindergarten classes and improve the quality of teachers’ instruction.

Access to full-day kindergarten helps improve students’ literacy and numeracy and enhances student achievement long term.

Although full-day kindergarten programs will be somewhat expanded, Utah law does not require Utah children to attend kindergarten. Parents who prefer that their children attend a half-day program will continue to have that option, too.