Teacher and student

Teacher Heidi Schultz works with Destiny Daniel in her 4K classroom at Falk Elementary School. 

A panel of state lawmakers Thursday overwhelmingly backed a bill that could encourage more Wisconsin school districts to offer full-day 4K programs.

The state Senate Education Committee approved 8-1 a proposal that would change how 4-year-old kindergarten students are counted if they attend a full-day program five days a week.

Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, was the lone “no” vote, citing concerns about increased costs for child care programs and the length of the school day for 4-year-olds.

Wisconsin school districts can voluntarily establish optional 4K programs. If established, the programs must be available for all 4-year-olds living in a district.

The proposed change is being sponsored by Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, and Rep. Joel Kitchens, R-Sturgeon Bay, who jointly led a Blue Ribbon Task Force on School Funding that included the change in counting 4K students among several recommendations for the education funding structure.

Under current law, a 4-year-old kindergarten student is counted as 50% or 60% of a student, even if they are in a full-day program.

By allowing full-day 4K students to be fully counted, it would contribute to the overall headcount of a district, which could mean more money through state general aid and an increased revenue limit to bring in more property taxes, according to a fiscal note from the Department of Public Instruction.

Of the 411 Wisconsin school districts that have elementary grades, only five do not offer a 4-year-old kindergarten option, according to DPI.

In the 2017-18 school year, 32 school districts had a full-day, full-week 4K program.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers proposed changing the way full-day, 4-year-old kindergarten children are counted as part of his biennial budget plan, but the provision was removed by the Republican-controlled budget committee.

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The change in how 4K students are counted is widely supported by Wisconsin education-related associations, DPI and the state’s two largest school districts — Madison and Milwaukee.

The Madison School District started a part-time 4K program in 2011. The program is offered at 26 elementary schools and at 22 early learning and child care facilities in a partnership with the district.

Melinda Heinritz, executive director of the Foundation for Madison’s Public Schools, said she would be “absolutely” supportive of the district eventually moving to full-day 4K, because the current half-day programs can be logistically challenging for families.

The state’s top education official, Superintendent Carolyn Stanford Taylor, has also expressed a desire for districts to expand 4-year-old kindergarten to a full day, while also saying urban districts should explore 3-three-year-old kindergarten programs.

Child care concerns

But there is opposition from some child care providers, who say the bill would increase costs for the remaining children in their programs and place 4-year-olds in public school programs that aren’t subject to the same strict standards.

Joan Beck, president of the Wisconsin Child Care Administrators Association, said the bill would threaten existing child care centers by encouraging more children to attend 4K programs, and expressed concern public school programs may be too rigid for young learners and be influenced by test scores.

If signed into law, school districts with full-day programs would have their state-imposed limits on raising property taxes affected in the 2020-21 school year. But the impact on state aid would not be fully realized until three years later as the funds are based on a rolling three-year average head count.

In the last two legislative sessions, a similar effort — primarily sponsored by Democrats — failed to receive hearings and died.

Research has suggested early learning opportunities, such as 4K, can lead to better social skills and academic outcomes. A study published in 2014 comparing outcomes of mostly low-income, minority Chicago preschoolers found those in a full-day program had higher levels of school readiness skills and attendance than those in a part-time program. State Journal reporter Riley Vetterkind contributed to this report.

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

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