Educational research supports the benefits of all-day kindergarten and parents are increasingly demanding it, says one Canyons School District administrator.

The school district has steadily expanded that option in recent years and now 26 of its 28 elementary schools offer some form of a full-day kindergarten program, said Kenna Sorensen, elementary administrator for the district’s instructional supports department.

“Research and data continue to show that if we are not providing this early education to our students, they’re going to have struggles through the rest of their life if they don’t get it early on,” she said.

To that end, Sorensen has been carefully monitoring HB477, now before the Utah Legislature. The proposal would further expand access to full-day kindergarten in Utah schools. However, kindergarten will remain optional for Utah families and schools will continue to offer half-day programs for families who do not want a full-day experience.

On Monday, the Senate Education Committee voted 4-0 to endorse the legislation, sending it to the Senate for further consideration

“We’re excited and we’re looking forward to the day when we can have all of our programs offering this so that it’s just available to every student, and then let the parents choose if that’s the route for them or if they’re looking for something else,” Sorensen said.

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Ruth Summers laughs while performing an exercise with a classmate during a full-day kindergarten class at East Sandy Elementary School in Sandy on Monday, Feb. 27, 2023. | Ryan Sun, Deseret News

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, said HB477 provides families — and schools — many choices.

Parents get the choice of what public school kindergarten option they want for their children, which includes not sending them to kindergarten.

“It also provides the greatest flexibility for districts and for charter schools. The community has really rallied around this bill to endorse this opportunity to expand full-day kindergarten to address the waiting lists of families,” Spendlove said.

Sara Wiebke, literacy coordinator for the Utah State Board of Education, said the $12.2 million appropriated for full-day kindergarten last year added 290 new kindergarten classrooms, which meant 6,600 new students had the opportunity for a full-day experience.

State-level data indicate the reading scores of students in full-day kindergarten are two to four times higher than peers attending half-day kindergarten or extended-day kindergarten, Wiebke said.

The demand for the full-day experience is growing. “Some of our LEAs (local education agencies) have been able to roll up to full-day kindergarten a little bit quicker than some of our others,” she said.

Washington County School District’s full-day kindergarten has had a 94% opt-in rate with parents “and their data shifted from 60% to 90% (proficiency) when they shifted from half-day to full day kindergarten,” Wiebke said.

Earlier in the session, the Utah House passed HB477 on a vote of 51-14. The bill has broad bipartisan support with 28 House co-sponsors.

According to the bill’s fiscal note, enacting HB477 would cost $97 million starting the next school year to increase the weighted pupil unit for kindergarten students. The WPU is the basic building block of education funding in Utah.

Sorensen, in an interview with the Deseret News, said emerging from the pandemic, full-day kindergarten will help student learning and socialization.

“We’ve seen and we’ve heard that COVID has really thrown a lot of our students, and specifically those coming into school new, for a loop, more so than it ever has been in the past. We are still trying to support the impact that COVID has had on us. A full day of kindergarten only allows us to make that easier for everyone not only academically but socially in building those skills,” she said.

Spendlove said Utah has the lowest percentage of students in the nation who have access to full-day kindergarten. Nationwide, eight out of 10 students have access to full-day kindergarten compared to three out of 10 in Utah.

“We’ve been able to see and you’ve heard in the testimony today how much parents want this,” Spendlove told the Senate Education Committee. Two people, both representing Utah Eagle Forum, spoke against the bill but all other members of the public who addressed the committee urged support.

Spendlove said there has been 96% opt-in in Cache schools and 100% opt-in in Carbon and Rich counties, he said. He noted the public comment of one parent who told the committee that enrollment for full-day kindergarten at her children’s school filled up in four minutes.

“That is amazing. The only thing more popular than full-day kindergarten is a Taylor Swift concert,” Spendlove said. “It’s something parents want and this is the year that we have the chance to do it so I’d encourage your support.”

Stephanie Cobabe teaches a full-day kindergarten class at East Sandy Elementary School in Sandy on Feb. 27, 2023.
Stephanie Cobabe teaches a full-day kindergarten class at East Sandy Elementary School in Sandy on Monday, Feb. 27, 2023. | Ryan Sun, Deseret News