ST. PAUL (AP) - The state of Minnesota is providing free all-day kindergarten for the first time this school year.

Most school districts are now offering all-day classes as thousands of Minnesota youngsters start kindergarten this week. Educators hope the $134 million initiative will improve early education across the state. Roughly 54,000 kindergartners will participate.

About half of Minnesota schools offered free full-day kindergarten previously. Others offered it at a cost of $2,000-$4,000 a year for parents.

Minnesota's director of early learning services says the extra class time will help ensure that every student is a proficient reader by third grade. Teachers say some new kindergarteners don't know the alphabet or how to write their names.

Education experts say all-day kindergarten improves students' learning through at least first grade.