Public schools follow the market, pitch all-day kindergarten
It's a working parent's dream - kindergartens competing to take your children off your hands all day, and the promise that they'll learn something, too.Skip to next paragraph
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In Arizona, a state with a booming senior population and dwindling pockets of families with small children, a marketing tug of war has erupted over who will get to educate Arizona's future.
Competition for students has always existed between public and private schools. But open enrollment, home schooling, and a growing number of charter schools have widened parents' choices, and now public schools are facing one of their biggest competitors yet - themselves.
For Arizona's traditional public schools, the offer of full-day kindergarten represents a preemptive-strike opportunity: Hook parents before they opt for a charter school.
That's not the overt motive, of course. All-day kindergarten has been on the rise nationwide, driven by a growing focus on the academic benefits of early education. But a plethora of marketing tools send a clear promotional signal: slick videos, websites, movie-trailer ads, a cable-access television show, and even a two-week "kindergarten academy."
"Parents have [more] choices," says Harriet Scarborough, Tucson Unified's senior officer for professional development and academics. "There was always the possibility that if we eliminated full-day kindergarten in one of our schools, and a charter school nearby did offer full-day kindergarten, parents [would] opt for the charter."
The battle to attract and keep students is raging fiercely in Arizona, which consistently ranks 50th among states in public per-pupil funding. In efforts to reverse that trend, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano recently signed a bill extending $25 million in full-day kindergarten funds to 130 of the state's poorest schools.
The effort is rippling across the state, with some districts so intent on introducing and promoting full-day programs that they are adopting what may seem like drastic measures. Several schools in Tucson have consolidated under one principal to find additional funding. Another school in Tempe created a marketing department with a $400,000 budget to spread the word about their program.
The heightened focus on all-day learning is proving to be a huge draw for parents. In Tucson, Jennifer Willey is typical of many who want an educational head start for their children. If the public programs hadn't offered full-day kindergarten when her daughter began school, "we would certainly have checked out alternatives, including charter schools," Ms. Willey says."It was a big consideration for us."
Parents can face difficult choices in areas where both public school districts and charters have full-day kindergarten. While charters might emphasize a curriculum favored by parents, there is often a cost. For Ms. Willie, it came down to money. At the charter school she contacted, only half-day kindergarten was free, while fees for each full day were about $10. "Over a month, that starts to add up," she says.
Still, to retain parents like Willey, the financially strapped Tucson Unified School District must spend $6 million annually for all-day kindergarten. In recent budget negotiations, the district placed all-day kindergarten on the chopping block. But parents protested and the motion was withdrawn.