There’s been a recent push to expand public access to pre-K programs, and it’s widely acknowledged that these programs bring benefits to working parents, especially working mothers. In these discussions though, it’s often assumed that parents’ childcare problems are solved once their kids go off to kindergarten. The reality, though, is that many school districts leave parents of kindergarteners in the lurch by offering “half-day” kindergarten programs that last just a few hours a day.
Data from the U.S. Department of Education shows that just 16 states require children to attend kindergarten, and only 12 states require their school districts to offer full-day kindergarten programs. Today, nearly a quarter of kindergarteners are in “half-day” programs. While down significantly from forty years ago, when nearly three-quarters were in half-day programs, there’s still much work to be done in making full-day kindergarten universal.
When school districts consider moving to full-day kindergarten, advocates for these programs almost always stress the educational benefits to children and deemphasize the benefits to working parents. An article about the expansion of full-day day in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, for example, seemed to pit kids’ interests against their parents’, observing that it was a “common criticism that families are interested in full-day kindergarten to facilitate employment by both parents [rather] than in the educational benefits.” The notion that kindergarten facilitates parental employment was so controversial that one of the town’s trustees talked up how affluent her town was and brazenly claimed, “No one is looking to our schools for day care.”
But the benefits of full-day kindergarten to working parents are not something to shy away from, and full-day kindergarten can be especially helpful in promoting employment among moms. Chloe Gibbs, now an assistant professor of economics at Notre Dame, looked at what happened to maternal employment after one state provided an influx of funding for full-day kindergarten, causing enrollment in full-day kindergarten to jump by over 22 percentage points from one school year to the next. In her study, “Unmeasured Effects? Assessing the Impact of Full-day Kindergarten on Maternal Employment,” she found that making full-day kindergarten available increased employment among mothers significantly, causing the number of female hires to increase by 2 or 3 per 100 women in the counties where full-day kindergarten offerings increased.
Boosting employment among working mothers is a point in favor of full-day kindergarten, not a strike against it. Full-day kindergarten is a win-win for children and their working parents.