Kids playing at science table (copy)

A new bill could allow Madison and other Wisconsin school districts to receive more per-student funding for full-day 4-year-old kindergarten programs. Madison has offered a half-day program since 2011, pictured here at Falk Elementary School in 2017.

With 4-year-old kindergarten students only counted as one-half for state funding purposes, full-day 4K hasn’t been a realistic option in the Madison Metropolitan School District since its program began in 2011.

A new bill, scheduled for a public hearing Thursday, would change that funding mechanism to count 4-year-olds in a district program five days a week for a full day as one full student — potentially paving the way for full-day 4K here and across the state. The companion bills, one in each of the Assembly and Senate, are among the recommendations offered by a bipartisan state Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding earlier this year, and have 10 sponsors in the Assembly and six in the Senate.

Foundation for Madison’s Public Schools executive director Melinda Heinritz said it was “exciting to see some elements” of that commission’s recommendations moving forward in the Legislature. The foundation urged support of the 4K bills on its website and Twitter feed Wednesday, and Heinritz said the increase in funding for schools to reach students at an earlier age is “critically important” in multiple ways.

“One is that kids having access to full-day education earlier is a benefit,” Heinritz said. “The fact that the district would be made whole with reimbursements from the state obviously is a benefit. Full day just from a practical, pragmatic perspective … the logistics of it are much smoother when you have full-day access.”

MMSD offers optional 4K at each of its school sites Tuesday through Friday, either AM or PM, as well as various community partner early childhood education sites, which have their own hours for the program but must meet the 437 hours of minimum instruction. Enrollment in the program has stayed between 1,719 and 1,871 kids over the past five years, according to state Department of Public Instruction data.

One City Expeditionary School, a public charter school that opened in Madison in 2018, offers full-day 4K already.

Current law allows students to be counted as 0.6 full-time equivalent (FTE) for reimbursement if the district provides at least 87.5 hours of additional outreach activities beyond the classroom.

According to a fiscal estimate attached to the bill, 32 of the state’s 421 school districts currently offer full-day 4K Monday through Friday.

The estimate acknowledges the incentive for districts to move to full-day 4K if the bill is approved, but also points out some caveats and states that DPI does not have data on how many districts would expand if the bill were approved.

“Other factors would have to be considered, such as available space and the wishes of the local community to expand the 4K program,” the narrative states.

Madison Teachers Inc. executive director Doug Keillor wrote in an email that MTI had not reviewed all of the details of the proposal, but was generally in support.

"MTI strongly supports legislation which would allow school districts to expand the delivery of 4K services, including the ability for school districts to offer full-day 4K programs," Keillor wrote. "Any and all investments in early childhood education produce dividends down the road and help us close gaps."

Heinritz said the bill would help all families with young children in Madison.

“Half-day causes some complications, because if you’re working, not everyone is in a position to drop off, pick up,” she said. “It gets complicated for families that have resources, and it is even more complicated if you don’t have those resources.”

Dr. Dipesh Navsaria, the president of the Wisconsin chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said having a full-day option could allow more parents to choose to enroll their child in early education, which can include activities like socio-emotional development and add adults who care about the child deeply, both of which can be "key to brain development."

“While we should be thinking about preschool and early childhood centers as being about the child and their needs and about early education, we also need to recognize there’s another role that school of any kind plays: having children be in a place, a positive, educational place where they can accomplish growth while their parents are off working or doing other important things," Navsaria said.

He also pointed to research that shows as high as a $7 return on every dollar invested in early education. Though that higher figure is for education even earlier than 4 years old, Navsaria said "it's also quite positive" at 4.

"It's actually an amazingly fiscally responsible move to make sure this is being funded and funded well," he said.

In an MMSD statement provided to the Cap Times by board member Savion Castro, the district encouraged support for the "critical equity strategy" of expanding 4K.

"Having 4K as a half day program presents some barriers for our students and families," the district states. "We know that we have more potential to have greater impact on those students who need it the most in a full day program, and we could accommodate more families through the full day program."

The hearing, a joint session between the Senate and Assembly committees on education, begins at 9 a.m. in the Capitol in room 412 East. There are six bills on the agenda.

A second 4K bill on the hearing schedule would expand the number of children who qualify for 4K by changing the deadline for them to turn 4. Under current law, a child must turn 4 by Sept. 1 of the school year in which they would enter 4K, but the bill would allow those who turn 4 by Dec. 31 of that year to enroll.

Children could also enter the 4K program mid-year for their first quarter or semester, according to the proposed bill text, if they turn 4 before June 30 of that year.

This bill would include a grace period for districts already operating 4K programs, with the new age requirements not going into effect until the 2025-26 school year.

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Scott Girard is the local k-12 education reporter at the Cap Times. A Madison native, he joined the paper in 2019 after working for six years for Unified Newspaper Group. Follow him on Twitter @sgirard9.