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GOP lawmakers: Use school funding judgment to fund all-day kindergarten

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PHOENIX – It’s 10:30 a.m. in Julie Dine’s kindergarten class at Horseshoe Trails Elementary School, and Cameron Zobec is among those learning how to sound out words presented on an iPad.

The schedule posted on the whiteboard shows learning activities from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., but Zobec said he doesn’t mind being in kindergarten all day.

“I like school,” he said. “We get to listen to music, work in our math workbooks and play with Legos.”

Zobec’s school district, Cave Creek Unified, is among 70 percent in Arizona that offer all-day kindergarten.

If two state lawmakers get their way, every school district and charter school will offer all-day kindergarten by tapping into some of the hundreds of millions of dollars a judge has said they are owed because state lawmakers failed to increase funding under a voter-approved law.

Rep. Brenda Barton, R-Payson, and Sen. Jeff Dial, R-Chandler, visited this classroom on Friday, Feb. 13, and had lunch with students to make their cases for HB 2426 and SB 1068.

Under a state law, third-graders who score poorly on a statewide reading assessment aren’t to be promoted. Dial and Barton said that why it’s especially important to get kids off to a good start in kindergarten.

“We want to build a strong foundation,” Dial said. “We want these kids to be reading by third grade.”

“These are programs where children are learning to read and put sentences together,” Barton said. “We want these kids to be able to read at a third-grade level by the time they make it to third grade.”

With the state facing massive budget deficits at the height of the Great Recession, lawmakers voted in 2010 to cut funding for an all-day kindergarten program that began in 2005.

Also in 2010, lawmakers stopped increasing base level school funding with inflation as required by Proposition 301, which in 2000 created an extra 0.6 percent sales tax earmarked for education.

The state Supreme Court has ordered the base-level funding reset to the level it should be at had it been adjusted every year. In all, the state could wind up paying nearly $1.6 billion, and a judge has set the first installment at more than $300 million.

Dial’s and Barton’s bills would encourage schools to use a portion of the funds resulting from the lawsuit to cover the costs of additional instruction. The bills wouldn’t take effect unless the money is paid through the ruling or a settlement.

“The individual school districts will have the ability to choose what funds they use,” Dial said. “They have the option to use local funding or money from inflation funding.”

Under the bills, parents would be allowed to choose half-day or all-day kindergarten for their children, but schools wouldn’t be required to offer separate curricula for both.

Both bills had yet to be heard in committee.

Debbi Burdick, superintendent of the Cave Creek Unified School District, said requiring all-day kindergarten at public and charter schools would help create a foundation for students.

“Kindergarten is the new first grade,” Burdick said. “The kids can now get their foundation for all grades after.”

Attorney Rodney Glassman, who works with the Additional Classroom Time for Kindergartners Coalition, a group that supports the two bills, said kindergarten is when a student’s brain is developing and that a full day of schooling enhances learning ability.

“There is no greater priority than kindergarten first if the goal is to set kids with the right trajectory and read by third grade,” he said.

Heidi Vega, director of communications for the Arizona School Boards Association, said her organization supports all-day kindergarten but doesn’t support the legislation because it doesn’t dedicate money.

“The bills would mandate a full-day kindergarten program without any resources but suggests that inflationary monies could be used,” she said.

Barton said she is thinking about her grandchildren.

“Today I saw children reading books and forming sentences,” she said. “Kindergarten should not be a baby-sitting service. We want to make the school system a better service.”