A bill requiring public school districts in Illinois to establish full-day kindergarten within the next four years passed the state legislature Friday and awaits Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s approval.
Democratic Rep. Mary Beth Canty of Arlington Heights introduced the bill that would mandate schools to create a full-day kindergarten program by the 2027-28 school year.
“Full-day kindergarten benefits all parties, giving children more time to learn, teachers more time to educate, and working parents more accessible and affordable sources of child care,” Canty said Monday.
Not long ago, Canty and her husband experienced firsthand the struggle of balancing an outside job while also figuring out a pickup schedule for her two children from their half-day kindergarten program in Arlington Heights District 25.
Canty said sometimes her kids, now in sixth and third grades, would hop on a bus after half-day kindergarten and go to the elementary school for an after-school program to be picked up later.
“It was a really long day for them, and my kids had been in full-day day care with no issues because you got to rest, you got a little bit of free time for your brain,” she said. “Most of what I’ve been hearing from parents is ‘thank you’ because they desperately need this option.”
Currently, most school districts provide either half-day or full-day kindergarten and because children in Illinois are not required to attend school until age 6, parents can opt out regardless of the format.
But there is an overwhelming demand for full-day kindergarten in the districts that already offer it, Canty said.
Besides it being beneficial for parents and students, full-day kindergarten loosens the curriculum for teachers as well, Canty said.
“Full day doesn’t mean you’re adding to the curriculum. It just means you’re getting more opportunities for the teachers to go through the material in a developmentally appropriate way, which will allow time for rest, for playing for all of those things while still getting through the material they need to get through,” she said.
Canty said one of the first orders of business, if the bill is signed by Pritzker, is to establish a full-day kindergarten task force to inform the planning and implementation, and to dive deep into data about what’s offered and where.
“Right now the numbers are just not clearly defined,” Canty said. “What we understand from ISBE is that it’s a handful of districts that don’t offer full-day kindergarten, and what we’re having a little bit of trouble fully understanding is how many offer one option but not the other.”
In District 25, for example, plans to start offering full-day kindergarten in the 2024-25 school year are underway and include getting construction plans approved to create additional classrooms at every school to accommodate a full-day kindergarten program.
“That may be right for some districts and it may not be right for others,” Canty said. “So that’s why in the bill, we don’t dictate how you accomplish the full-day kindergarten. It’s just that you do have to provide it.”
Emily Warnecke, director of public relations and deputy director of governmental relations for the Illinois Association of School Administrators, said that although the idea of full-day kindergarten is widely favored among lawmakers and parents, implementation isn’t so simple.
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“You cannot just double the number of kindergarten students that are being served in these districts without making sure that there’s space for them, because there’ll either need to be an addition built on to current buildings, or potentially even stand-alone buildings built for this purpose,” Warnecke said Monday. “And right now, construction costs are pretty, pretty steep so districts are probably going to have to ask their taxpayers for a referendum approval to be able to get the bonding capacity to be able to build these structures.”
Warnecke said she spoke to a district last week that said it was looking into temporary trailers to house the number of students for whom they’re going to have to provide full-day kindergarten. If districts can’t get taxpayers to agree to a hike, Warnecke said temporary structures might end up being a viable option for several schools, as well as the not-so-ideal increase in class sizes.
Warnecke said the IASA, which acts as a united voice for school district superintendents in the Illinois General Assembly, fully supports the idea of full-day kindergarten but is concerned about how districts will tackle operational costs.
“Right now, typically, what the employment structure looks like is there’s one teacher who’s teaching a half-day morning classroom and an afternoon classroom. So that teacher might be responsible for let’s say, 40 students — 20 in the morning, 20 in the afternoon,” Warnecke explained. “So now they’re going to need to employ two teachers for those 40 students, because you want 20 in each classroom full day, so they are going to have to double the number of teachers that they hire.”
The measure also allows struggling schools to get an extension for full-day kindergarten implementation. Canty said schools are still allowed to establish a half-day program if the district sees a desire and need for it, but must offer full-day kindergarten. And elementary districts that don’t have kindergarten would be required to create a full-day option if the bill is signed.