Seeking to provide universal full-day kindergarten but facing a strained budget, school board members in one of the nation’s most affluent counties have proposed an unusual solution: Make parents pay for it.

The Loudoun County School Board, leery of the cost and skeptical of the benefit, has resisted offering full-day kindergarten even as it has become the norm for three-quarters of children nationwide and something many educators view as essential.

The school board, as part of its annual legislative agenda, recently asked Virginia lawmakers for the authority to charge parents a fee to upgrade from half-day kindergarten, emphasizing that the board wants the option to do so. It’s an issue Richmond is unlikely to take up this year, but it raised a debate about whether public schools should require tuition for what is increasingly viewed as a core part of a young child’s public education.

The idea of paying for public school has stirred outrage among some parents. They wonder how a county with one of the nation’s highest median incomes can have a school system too strapped to pay for full-day kindergarten and how such an educated and successful population wouldn’t want to build that into the county’s standard academic package.

“Honestly, I think it’s crap,” said Cassie Lauterette, whose son Tucker is now a first-grader at Kenneth W. Culbert Elementary School. “If I’m sending my child to public school, then that’s what my taxes are paying for.”

Cassie Lautrette talks to her son Tucker, 6, after he gets off the school bus outside their home on Friday, Feb. 6, in Hamilton, Va. Loudoun County is one of three Virginia school districts that doesn't offer full-day kindergarten to all students. This meant Cassie Lauterette's family had to pay for a private, half-day class to supplement her son's public half-day program. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

[Read about the half-day kindergarten time crunch.]

But it also reflects a growing sense of budget desperation in Loudoun, where the county government has been reluctant to raise taxes to support a school population that has expanded more than 60 percent the past decade.

“It sends a message that we can’t afford full-day kindergarten here in Loudoun,” school board member Bill Fox (Leesburg) said at the November board meeting, during which the motion passed 6-to-3.

Kindergarten is widely considered an important entryway into academics — educators believe it is far more than just day care — and 77 percent of kindergartners nationwide were in full-day programs in 2013, according to a report from Child Trends, a nonprofit research center.

Full-day kindergarten has been required in Maryland schools since 2007. Fairfax County began phasing it in at its neediest schools in the late 1990s and adopted it for all schools in fall 2011.

Chicago Public Schools, the nation’s third-largest school system, began offering universal full-day kindergarten in 2013 “because early education is so important to every child’s success,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) wrote in The Washington Post.

While parents and districts across the country have embraced full-day kindergarten as the norm, not all state funding formulas have caught up. A dozen states in 2013 allowed districts to charge for full-day kindergarten, often to make up for the gap in state funding. From Andover, Mass., to Seattle, parents are shelling out up to $4,600 a year for full-day programs, with half-day provided for free. And many districts provide waivers or a sliding scale so that all children, regardless of family income, can attend.

Kindergarten students at Guilford Elementary listen to P.E. teacher Luther Binford on Friday, Feb. 6. Because Guilford is full-day, it's able to offer physical education, arts, music and more lessons on core subjects like math and reading. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)
Philosophical questions

Loudoun is one of just three counties in Virginia — and the only jurisdiction in the Washington area — without universal full-day kindergarten. Educators have focused on saving full-day slots for students who are considered at-risk, including English language learners, children with special needs and children from low-income families. With just about 1,000 slots at 10 schools, at least 336 children who were labeled at-risk did not get into a full-day program in Loudoun this year. The full-day program doesn’t come close to serving the 4,600 kindergartners in the county.

In the 74,000-student district, full-day kindergarten faces philosophical hurdles as well as financial ones. Local lawmakers are dubious of its value and haven’t been willing to force taxpayers to underwrite it.

School board member Thomas E. Reed (At Large) went even further, arguing that all parents of public school students should pay tuition, an idea his colleagues quickly shot down.

Some school board members worry about the expense of full-day kindergarten in a district that built three schools last year just to keep up with increasing enrollment. Other opponents cite research questioning the program’s long-term benefits.

“Much of the push for full-day kindergarten is actually a push for taxpayer-supported child care rather than being quite so much a focus on education,” said state Sen. Richard H. Black, a Republican who represents Loudoun.

Fox said it’s difficult to see the necessity of full-day kindergarten when the district is performing so well. Last year, Loudoun boasted a 95 percent on-time graduation rate and SAT and ACT scores far above the national average.

“No one can point to any research that shows that at the time of graduation that you can draw any distinction in success of children who attended full-day kindergarten versus half-day kindergarten,” Fox said. “If you’re talking about a program that would cost us $80 million in capital improvements . . . for something that has no proven measurable distinction in our finished product, that’s a really hard sell for me.”

Moving to universal full-day kindergarten would require the district to hire additional teachers and either expand schools or construct new ones. With the half-day program, one room can host morning and afternoon classes.

Even as board members tout the district’s achievements, the narrative of high performance has an asterisk. The county’s black and Hispanic students perform worse than the state average for all students in standardized test scores. Its English language learners scored worse than their peers statewide.

Superintendent Eric Williams pointed this out before asking the board to expand the full-day program to include all at-risk students for the coming school year. The school board approved the proposed budget, but the board of county supervisors, which allocates half of the school budget, is likely to ask for cuts.

Michele Freeman, the supervisor of elementary education, said she believes that all children stand to gain from full-day kindergarten and that at-risk children stand to gain the most. The board’s proposal would provide all-day kindergarten for at-risk children for free.

“Of course, any extended time where you can go into depth with curriculum is going to benefit every child,” she said.

Chloe Gibbs, an assistant education professor at the University of Virginia, said that most research shows that the benefits of full-day kindergarten fade out by the third grade. But she cautioned that some studies might not adequately account for the many students who attend full-day kindergarten but start at a disadvantage.

Parents also worry about what their children are missing when they do not attend for the full day, potentially forcing teachers to rush their students through state-mandated curriculum.

‘We don’t have time to play’

At Guilford Elementary, a school that receives special federal funds because it has high rates of poverty, all kindergarten classes run the full day. That means there’s room in the schedule for “specials” like physical education, music and art.

In the music room on Friday, Melinda Windsor taught children the song “Skidamarink” with a simple dance and then encouraged them to rewrite the lyrics. She pulled up a slide on the interactive whiteboard with the heading “I love.”

“What’s something that you love?” she asked the class of squirmy youngsters, who were seated on a carpet.

“This class!” a boy responded.

Allison Russo, a researcher and the mother of a second-grader at Frances Hazel Reid Elementary, said she does not need an expert to convince her of the benefits of full-day kindergarten. Her son’s half-day class was so rushed that he often left school drained, lamenting that “We don’t have time to play with our friends.”

“They really literally had no time to do that,” she said.

She scoffed at the idea that board members were still considering the value of full-day classes instead of coming up with a plan to implement it.

“I think that’s particularly interesting that some members of our school board continue to debate the merits of full-day kindergarten,” she said. “Does every other county have this wrong?”

Board member Debbie Rose (Algonkian) said she’s heard from parents who would be willing to pay for full-day classes as well as from those who are incredulous at the idea of charging for it. But nearly all want the option.

Lauterette, whose son struggled with reading and speech delays, decided that full-day kindergarten was a must. Already shouldering Tucker’s preschool tuition, her mother-in-law stepped in to pay for a half-day private kindergarten so he could get a full day of instruction.

Now, the self-employed IT consultant said she cannot afford the same for her younger son, whom she plans to send to half-day public kindergarten.

She said the district should offer full-day kindergarten to everyone, instead of limiting it to at-risk students.

“Just because I happen to be a little more educated and I happen to make a little bit more money doesn’t mean my child should be shortchanged when it comes to his education,” she said. “We’re middle class, and yet my child needed speech therapy and reading therapy.”

Rose, a mother of three, admits that she is “very conflicted” on the issue of charging for full-day kindergarten.

“As a parent, I would definitely have explored it . . . and would have been interested and not opposed to it,” she said.

But she also harbors concerns that such a scenario could pose an untenable burden on families who choose to pay for it, even if low-income families could attend for free. “At the same time, is it the right thing to do?”