How would legislation requiring full-day kindergarten affect suburban schools?

If Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs a bill requiring full-day kindergarten in all elementary and unit school districts within four years, at least nine suburban districts would be forced to comply, even if voters rejected proposals in the past.

That's according to a Daily Herald analysis of 80 suburban districts in five counties.

The percentage statewide is similar: About 11% of elementary and unit districts statewide don't currently have full-day kindergarten, education officials said.

And the cost of changing that would be shouldered by taxpayers in those districts.

All nine of the suburban districts without full-day kindergarten offer half-day classes. Some of the districts are in the process of making the transition to full-day after recent voter-approved — and costly — tax hikes.

Both Palatine Elementary District 15 and Arlington Heights Elementary District 25 schools will soon have full-day kindergarten no matter the outcome of the proposed legislation that was sent to Pritzker last week.

District 25 is borrowing $75 million to make additions and renovations at six of the district's seven elementary schools to accommodate the shift. They also estimate another $1.4 million is needed annually to cover operational costs for personnel and supplies.

“People should start to see some physical changes to our schools this summer,” said Superintendent Lori Bein.

Both District 25 and District 15 are planning to offer full-day kindergarten at the start of the 2024-2025 school year.

Supporters of full-day kindergarten point to studies that show young learners are better prepared for first grade, both academically and socially, if they've gone through full-day kindergarten classes.

Current state law also requires all school districts with full-day kindergarten classes to offer half-day options as well, which won't go away if the new law is signed. District officials where full-day classes are available said that option is used by the vast majority of those students.

“It's not a huge number of districts that don't offer full-day kindergarten already,” said state Rep. Mary Beth Canty, an Arlington Heights Democrat who was the bill's chief sponsor. “While there's no money set aside, there is a long ramp to implementation.”

Meanwhile, detractors of the bill complain the unfunded mandate is only part of the problem.

“First of all, this is a decision that should be determined by the local school board,” argued state Rep. Steven Reick, a Woodstock Republican whose district covers parts of eastern McHenry and western Lake counties. “It also creates a task force to find out if it in fact is a good idea, which is not the way to do this.”

In the suburbs, there are five other suburban elementary districts without full-day kindergarten: Des Plaines 62, Mount Prospect 57, Prospect Heights 23, Bloomingdale 13 and Glen Ellyn 41. Two unit districts in Lake County, Barrington 220 and Wauconda 118, also are without full-day kindergarten classes.

While District 220 offers an “enrichment program” for kindergartners that allows students to remain at school all day, changes to that curriculum would be needed for it to be considered full-day kindergarten, district officials said.

Voters in Prospect Heights and Glen Ellyn recently rejected tax hike proposals that would have allowed the districts to offer full-day kindergarten, something opponents of the proposed legislation also note.

“Someone's got to pay for it, and voters there said they didn't want to,” said state Rep. Tom Weber, a Lake Villa Republican whose district covers parts of northern Lake and McHenry counties. “We're just forcing them to do it.”

District 41 leaders in Glen Ellyn are looking at a number of options to move forward with full-day kindergarten without the additional $49 million recently rejected by voters to build a new school. Proposals including additions at all schools or building one large kindergarten center were presented at a recent school board meeting, and a special board meeting is slated for 6 p.m. June 5 to continue that discussion.

Officials in other districts say they are keeping an eye on the fate of Canty's bill but also exploring how to accommodate full-day offerings.

“We are in the beginning stages of evaluating what the expansion of a full-day kindergarten program would look like, which includes looking at our current schools and our spaces, staffing and curricular needs,” said Des Plaines District 62 spokeswoman Jennifer Bova.

At Wauconda District 118, Superintendent David Wilm said the school board has been investigating a shift to full-day kindergarten since last spring.

“We know that enrollment over the next five years is expected to decrease by a few hundred students and provides an opportunity for a full-day kindergarten, but we're still investigating whether that's realistic,” he said. “There are space limitations, and the first step is to see if current facilities would be adequate.”

Space becomes an issue for multiple reasons.

For instance, Arlington Heights District 25 currently needs space for only about 200 kindergartners each year because the 400 students are split between morning and afternoon sessions. But now they'll need space for all 400 students simultaneously. Plus they estimate another 150 or so students will enroll in the district and away from private full-day kindergarten classes that can cost families thousands of dollars annually.

Canty notes her bill relieves a child care burden for parents in districts that offer only half-day kindergarten classes.

She added that child care center operators didn't oppose her bill.

“I don't think these child care centers will suddenly become obsolete just because school districts are offering full-day kindergarten,” she said.

Several operators of child care centers that offer kindergarten classes said the effects of the new legislation, if passed, would be minimal because most of their offerings are for children younger than kindergarten age.

If signed by Pritzker, schools would have to begin offering full-day kindergarten by the 2027-2028 school year.

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