The Business of Kindergarten: Loudoun’s $20 million-a-year Industry

There is a 12-letter word that Lyla Hafeez looks for in headlines these days: kindergarten.

As county government and school leaders debate whether Loudoun should expand its full-day kindergarten offerings, and how to pay for it, she’s paid attention. Because whatever decision is ultimately made will impact her 4-year-old daughter’s education, and the Hafeezs’ pocketbook.

If Loudoun County Public Schools’ plan to expand full-day kindergarten to all but 13 schools this fall is funded, Marina will go to her neighborhood school, Sycolin Creek Elementary near Leesburg. If it’s not, she’ll go to a Fairfax County elementary school, where Hafeez teaches, and pay $10,000 in tuition.

“This is on a lot of parents’ minds right now,” Hafeez said.

She and her husband have already started making room in their budget for tuition, just in case. He returned a new car, in exchange for one with a less-expensive monthly payment, and they’re reining in other expenses too.

“We even contemplated pulling from her college fund but we decided no, we’ll just make due with whatever we can for now,” she said. “It is frustrating to spend all this money we thought we were going to save.”

For many local families, footing the bill for private school is the only option for their kindergartner to receive a full, six-hour school day. Loudoun is one of only three school divisions in Virginia that do not offer universal full-day kindergarten.

About one-quarter of Loudoun kindergartners are enrolled in private schools or neighboring jurisdictions, and paying anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000 in tuition. That means, collectively, Loudoun families spend about $20.6 million in full-day kindergarten tuition, according to Lindsay Weissbratten, founder of the advocate group Loudoun for Full Day Kindergarten.

“Families are already paying taxes,” she said, “and then they’re paying tuition to receive the same education provided for free in neighboring counties.”

Families in Limbo

Loudoun County has made some progress toward universal full-day kindergarten.

Two years ago, 11 percent of the county’s kindergartners attended school all day. This year, it’s up to 32 percent, or 1,536 students. The school system is requesting $9.7 million to expand the program to 75 percent of kindergartners next school year.

But it’s too early to know whether the Board of Supervisors will back enough funding to pay for it. Supervisors vote on their budget in April.

That makes it difficult for families to plan.

It’s enrollment season for most private schools, and Weissbratten, seen as an expert on the kindergarten issue in Loudoun, has been asked by many parents whether they should register their child in private schools or hold out for a full-day program at their nearby public school.

She recommends they enroll in a private program, just in case.

“People really need to assume they’re not going to get it,” she said. “I get it. The deposits are big—like $800 at some schools. That’s a lot of money to lose, but you don’t want to hope that you get full-day kindergarten and then miss out.”

Nicole Majak, who’s facing that dilemma, said she’d rather not lose out on a deposit. “We’ll probably just take our chances.”

Kindergartner Peyton Smith makes chocolate-covered strawberries for Valentine's Day during class at Loudoun County Day School in Leesburg. (Photo by Douglas Graham/Loudoun Now)
Kindergartner Peyton Smith shows off  her tasty class project at Loudoun County Day School in Leesburg. (Photo by Douglas Graham/Loudoun Now)

She is leaning toward not signing her 4-year-old daughter up for private school, in hopes that Algonkian Elementary will offer a full-day program. This year, her son attends kindergarten at Algonkian for three hours a day, before he hops on the bus at 11 a.m. to spend the last half of his day at Chesterbrook Academy.

“It’s a long day,” Majak said, “and he has different teachers and different friends.”

She said it’s not about the money. She wishes the school system would allow parents to pay for their kindergartners to attend a full day. Then, they would get more enrichment programs like art and music, and they would attend with the students who will be their classmates throughout elementary school.

“It’s silly to me that we live in the richest county in the country and our kids go to kindergarten for three hours a day,” she said. “They miss out on a lot.”

Impact on Private Schools

Private schools are following Loudoun’s kindergarten debate just as much as families with young children.

As more kindergartners can get a full day at their neighborhood public school, some predict a drop in private schools’ enrollment. Sam Adamo, executive director of planning for Loudoun County Public Schools, expects about 920 students more, or 18 percent of all Loudoun kindergartners, will enroll in public schools if the majority offer full-day kindergarten.

“I think they are definitely going to take a hit,” Hafeez said. “If your local public schools are really good, why would you opt to send your kid to a private school?”

Adela Taboada, owner of Primrose School of Ashburn and Primrose School of Ashburn at Broadlands, expects many families will still pay the $400 a week because of the quality of education offered there.

“They see the difference and they value that,” she said. “They’ll say I’m not buying a new car, this is worth it. One parent said, ‘we’re investing early now so that later on when it’s their turn to go to college they can get a scholarship.’”

Loudoun Country Day School Headmaster Randy Hollister said it’s difficult to know how the school’s enrollment will be impacted. Each year, a few families enroll in the school, and pay the $24,985 tuition, just for the full-day kindergarten program and then return to public school by first grade. But that’s becoming more rare.

A number of families have told him they planned to just stay for kindergarten but stayed on because of the school’s emphasis on hands-on learning, public speaking and community service. “That is very gratifying,” he said.

Kindergartner Dominic Perez makes chocolate-covered strawberries during class at Loudoun County Day School.(Douglas Graham/Loudoun Now)
Kindergartner Dominic Perez makes chocolate-covered strawberries during class at Loudoun County Day School.(Douglas Graham/Loudoun Now)

Ken Nysmith, headmaster at Nysmith School for the Gifted in Herndon, offered some comforting words for Loudoun private schools. When Fairfax County Public Schools moved to universal full-day kindergarten in 2011, the private school lost just a handful of students.

The key, he added, is Nysmith offers something different than public schools, and Loudoun’s private schools would need to continue meeting a need the public school system can’t.

“It certainly means they need to differentiate themselves,” he said. “But let’s face it, none of us would be in business if the public schools were doing everything that parents wanted.”

‘We’re Not Done Yet’

Weissbratten is hopeful that the days of private school tuition as her only option for full-day kindergarten will soon be over. She said when the School Board adopted the superintendent’s plan to expand the program to 75 percent of kindergartners, she was stunned. “I was just speechless. I’m so happy for the progress,” she said. “But we’re not done yet. We need supervisors to approve the $1 billion budget.”

That would provide a six-hour school day to all but 1,280 Loudoun kindergartners.  Proponents of full-day kindergarten face a larger, and more costly, hurdle to extend the program countywide. School leaders have said it would cost another $6.8 million just in salaries and supplies to expand to universal kindergarten. But that doesn’t include the cost of building the extra classroom additions needed at several central and southern Loudoun schools, that would likely add several million more dollars.

“Each year, we’re making progress,” Weissbratten said. “We’ll get there.”