Keri Jones-Fonnesbeck and Amberlie Phillips: Utah children should have access to full-day kindergarten

Too many families in Utah do not have the option of giving their children this boost to their education.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kindergarten teacher Connie Orton, reads to her students at John Hancock Charter School in Pleasant Grove, Friday, Sept. 7, 2018.

We are both working parents living in Davis County. And we are both beyond frustrated with the lack of kindergarten options for our children.

On December 1, the Utah State Board of Education will once again discuss their support for expanding optional full-day kindergarten in more neighborhood schools across Utah. They will vote on a new proposal for fully funding optional full-day kindergarten wherever parents want it. This is the second year in a row the board has prioritized a legislative request for more optional full-day kindergarten funding.

So why do so many parents still not have the choice to send their kids to a full-day kindergarten program at their neighborhood schools?

During the 2022 legislative session, state leaders picked apart a proposal that would’ve created a path for every Utah family to have access to the kindergarten program that was right for their child.

Instead, they created another grant program with limited funds for optional full-day kindergarten expansion. We are thrilled for the children who, thanks to that funding, now have access to a full day of high-quality, developmentally appropriate education! Now, what about the 28,000 kids who don’t?

Keri’s son spent last year in a wonderful private full-day early education program. He was more than ready for full-day kindergarten, and she wanted the chance to send him — but did not have the opportunity. He is currently enrolled in a half-day program, and she knows it has affected his learning trajectory. His little sister will be in kindergarten in two years, and Keri hopes for different opportunities for her.

Amberlie has two children in elementary school. For their kindergarten years, her family made two different — both difficult — choices: Her son attended a private full-day kindergarten in Salt Lake with significant monthly tuition, while her daughter attended half-day kindergarten at their neighborhood public school in Davis County. Both years were challenging for Amberlie’s family.

We want the opportunity to nurture our children’s success in ways that work for our families. We want our state tax dollars to fund spaces where they can flourish and grow, while building a strong foundation for future academic achievement. We both have many supports in place that helped us work through our kindergarten challenges, but many more families don’t have those same supports.

Most Utah families, like ours, want the chance to participate in full-day kindergarten. In school districts that recently expanded their full-day kindergarten programs (such as Washington County and Sevier), between 90% and 95% opted in.

We know full-day kindergarten isn’t right for all families. We also expect that some districts — like Davis — will have to get creative with current facilities and future planning to expand access. But without stable, flexible funding from the state, it’s hard to justify all the effort of planning for more full-day kindergarten in the future.

Ongoing legislative funding will allow all districts and charters to decide what balance of half- and full-day kindergarten best meets the preferences of their communities, and to implement those changes on a timeline that works for them.

It is too late for three of our four kids to have the educational opportunity that millions of children across the nation already have. But it’s not too late for all the children who haven’t yet reached school age. Those families deserve a choice.

Like many other Utahns who support optional full-day kindergarten expansion, we are speaking out because we care about what is best for all kids — not just our own.

Keri Jones-Fonnesbeck

Amberlie Phillips

Keri Jones-Fonnesbeck and Amberlie Phillips are both mothers who work from home and live in Davis County.