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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

Wisconsin Lawmakers Consider Fully Funding 4-Year-Old Kindergarten

Emily Files
In this photo taken at the beginning of last school year, kindergarteners at Martin Luther King Jr. School raise their hands for teacher Angela Harris. Milwaukee Public Schools is one of just 32 districts in Wisconsin that offer full-day 4K.

In most Wisconsin school districts, 4-year-olds can attend kindergarten. But the programs are usually for just part of the day. State legislators are now considering two bills that could expand full-day kindergarten options for children under 5.

One bill would make it easier for school districts to offer full-day 4K programs by increasing the amount of funding per-student. Right now, schools receive about half the funding for 4-year-olds that they get for 5-year-olds. The other bill would loosen the age restrictions on 4K, allowing some 3-year-olds to attend.

The bills are products of the Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding, a special committee that traveled the state gathering testimony on K-12 education issues.

At a joint hearing of the House and Senate education committees Thursday, lawmakers and stakeholders agreed on the importance of early childhood education. 

"This is one of the ways that we can, in the state of Wisconsin, close the achievement gap, starting at the youngest age," said Republican Sen. Luther Olsen, who is sponsoring the legislation.

But there was disagreement about whether kids that young should be at school full-time.

The main opposition comes from private childcare providers who rely on 3- and 4-year-olds for their business. They offered extensive testimony at the hearing. Linda Kudrna, who owns a childcare center in Cottage Grove, said high-quality daycares are more suitable for young children.

"Not a big old building with big kids outside, bullies out there and all kinds of things," Kudrna said. "You know, there's so much going on in schools now that we want to put little people there, and put them on buses? You guys are crazy."

But public school advocates spoke up for the bill, saying district programs are developmentally appropriate. Madison School Board Member Cris Carusi emphasized that full-day programs will be more accessible to disadvantaged families. Right now, because of state funding limitations, Madison only offers half-day 4K.

"Madison students experiencing homelessness are half as likely as their peers to enroll in 4K," Carusi said. "Their families cite half-day 4K as a major barrier to their participation. They value and need the stability that 4K provides."

Milwaukee already has full-day 4K in schools across the city. MPS supports the bill to fully fund those students. School Choice Wisconsin, which advocates for private voucher schools, is also in favor.

GOP lawmakers previously rejected Gov. Tony Evers' budget request to fully fund 4K. It is unclear if these bills, which have sponsors from both parties, will have a better chance with the full Legislature. For now, they remain in committee until a vote takes place.

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Emily has been reporting on Milwaukee-area education for WUWM since 2018.
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