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Simla Elementary School kindergarteners head to the gym at the Big Sandy School Monday, Feb. 25, 2019. There were fewer than 20 children enrolled Simla's half-day kindergarten program this year. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A decade ago, when Colorado officials surveyed school districts about then-Gov. Bill Ritter’s big idea to put full-day kindergarten in every school, support wasn’t unanimous.

School administrators in Telluride, one of the state’s wealthier resort towns, were dismissive of the full-day kindergarten priority from the governor back then, according to the survey conducted by the Colorado Department of Education.

“Universal funding for full-day kindergarten is a solid goal for improving achievement for all students,” the CDE survey shows Telluride officials argued back then. “However, given the realities of the funding constraints facing public education in Colorado, new funds would be better spent on literacy goals for primary grades.”

The early reservations expressed years ago by officials like those in Telluride still reverberate now that a new governor, Jared Polis, has succeeded in making free full-day K the centerpiece of his education agenda.

Was full-day K the best place to channel new money given all of the state’s daunting education needs? Budget writers in the legislature wrestled with that question this year after Polis asked them to make full-day K a top priority. Afterall, Colorado ranks 42nd in the nation in per pupil spending, $2,500 below the national average, according to one national survey. Rural school districts say they can’t pay a salary sufficient to attract teachers, and several districts have resorted to recruiting from the Philippines for hard-to-fill positions in math and science. About 45 percent of the state’s school districts are open only four days out of the week, with districts like Pueblo saying they moved away from the typical five-day school week partly due to funding woes.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis stands with lawmakers, education advocates and students to announce legislation for free full-day kindergarten on March 22, 2019. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

Yet, this year, Polis made good on a key campaign promise and successfully pushed a full-day K program through the legislature. Lawmakers agreed to set aside $175 million annually to finance the program, about 76% of the amount Polis requested. Another $25 million in marijuana tax revenue will assist school districts in setting up full-day kindergarten programs, buying the necessary furniture and in making other upgrades.

The Telluride officials said back in 2008 that while poorer kindergarten students deserved support, those from richer families didn’t need it. They argued in the CDE survey that wealthy parents should bear the cost of getting their children into full-day kindergarten, and that the state should subsidize the costs of kindergarten only for the poor.

Funding for schools has gotten tighter

Education funding in Colorado has become even more dire since then.

In 2009, amid a steep economic downturn, the state put in place a budget-balancing tool that has ended up slashing anywhere from $573 million to $1 billion in annual state aid for education — making those funding constraints on the state’s public education system referenced by the Telluride officials even more severe.

It was cuts like those that concerned state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, a Democrat from Arvada, who sits on the legislative committee that writes the state budget. While supportive of full-day K, Zenzinger said she initially worried that financing full-day K could become unsustainable if an economic downturn hit.

She agreed to back the governor after the annual cost was reduced by about $45 million when she and other budget writers realized other states with free full-day kindergarten don’t have 100 percent attendance. She and the rest of the budget writers looked and saw that about 80 percent of the state’s kindergarten-aged children already attend full-day kindergarten, either through tuition-based programs parents pay for, or through free programs. The lawmakers estimated Polis’ push would attract about 85 percent attendance, similar to what occurs in other states where kindergarten is free.

Early on, Zenzinger had pushed for an income-based approach that would require wealthier parents to pay the cost of full-day kindergarten, but eventually she relented and agreed to go along with the governor.

“I had been interested in only making full-day kindergarten free at particular income levels, but over time, and, in conversations with the governor’s office, we felt free public school should be free public school for everyone,” Zenzinger said. “It’s going to be a really good equity and equalizing measure.”

She predicted investing in early learning will end up saving the state money in the long run. The state will spend less on closing the achievement gap for students who enter first grade unprepared for school, she said. The early-education investment also will pay dividends later on because students who graduate years from now will be more prepared for the workforce and for higher education, Zenzinger said.

Simla Elementary School kindergarten teacher Holly Koehn’s classroom at the Big Sandy School on Feb. 25, 2019. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Funding came from inconsistent sources

Prior to passage of Polis’ full-day K program, Colorado funded kindergarten students at a little more than half the rate it funded older students. The funding discrepancy ended up creating different approaches to kindergarten from district to district.

Some districts dipped into their own local funds or used federal aid for high-poverty schools to finance full-day programs. Others provided half-day programs for free but let parents pay tuition to enroll their students in full-day programs.

Even within a single district, parents and their children were impacted in dramatically different ways. One school in a district could have a free full-day program, financed through federal aid tied to high student poverty rates. Another school in the same district, with a wealthier student population, might only offer a half-day program or perhaps a full-day program that required parents to pay tuition.

Polis estimated that under the old system, nearly 50,000 students in the state attended full-day kindergarten and about 13,300 were enrolled in half-day programs. Under the new system, local school districts now will receive the same funding for kindergarten students as they receive for older students. Districts also will be barred from charging parents tuition for kindergarten.

The Polis administration estimates the new system will free up $100 million that school districts had been using to subsidize full-day kindergarten. And some districts with robust full-day programs already are moving to put the local funds to other uses.

In Denver, school administrators will use the money the new program freed up to make good on promises they made to increase teacher pay to end a strike. In the Westminster School District, money the district had devoted to subsidizing full-day kindergarten now will go toward bolstering preschool. Districts also can use federal aid that had been paying full-day K for other uses now.

As many as 30,000 families off the tuition hook

Polis’ program also will help families in other districts who had been using their own funds to send their children to full-day kindergarten. About 30,000 families who paid tuition under the old system now will be able to send their children to kindergarten for free, according to Polis’ estimates. That estimate likely is inflated, however, since officials at the Colorado Department of Education say it’s based on all fees paid by families to school districts, and there’s no way to know how much is tied to kindergarten tuition.

The families that will benefit include those in Telluride, which has one of the lower student poverty rates in the state. About 23 percent of that district’s students qualify for free and reduced lunches, a measure of poverty, when 42 percent of the students statewide qualify for such lunch plans.

About 50 to 60 students typically attended Telluride’s the full-day program in past years, with their families paying $1,200 in tuition for each pupil annually, Superintendent Michael Gass said. Now all families — from low-income to the well-heeled — can send their children to kindergarten for free. The governor’s full-day program also will benefit the few families who sent their kids to half-day programs for free, Gass said.

Even though Telluride administrators in 2008 advocated for an approach that would require the wealthy to pay, they’ve shifted their attitude. Gass, who became Telluride’s superintendent in 2015, said he supports Polis’ approach. Telluride is a unique case, and families there deserve free full-day kindergarten, too, Gass said. He pointed out that the resort town is expensive, and an $85,000 annual income doesn’t go as far in Telluride as it does elsewhere in the state. He said families in Telluride might not don’t qualify for federal poverty programs, but they still struggle financially because the cost of living is so high.

Families in the Douglas County School District, where 12 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunches, the fourth lowest rate of any district in Colorado, also will save money.

About two-thirds of the students in the Douglas County district attend full-day kindergarten, which costs their families as much as $350 a month. Families paid a total of $4.5 million in full-day K tuition there in the last school year. In the booming suburbs of Jefferson County, where the school district has a lower-than-average rate of students on free and reduced lunch, families will save an annual full-day kindergarten tuition cost of up to $300 a month, an amount that district-wide equals $6 million in payments annually.

Even with some of the benefits going to wealthier families, early childhood advocates say the state’s investment is worth the expense.

“We’re trying to avoid a patchwork where it depends on what community you are in,” said Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign, a nonprofit that advocates for early childhood issues. “It’s the cleanest and the best long-term approach to say, ‘Let’s make it a universal-access program.’”

He points out that under the old system, even students in poorer districts sometimes had to pay. For instance in Adams 12 Five Star Schools, where about 40 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced lunches, free full-day programming was based in 10 schools that received special federal aid due to poverty rates. If a poorer student was attending a school where there wasn’t free kindergarten, their family was out of luck or had to pony up $300 a month for extended programming, he said.

Kindergarten teacher Katie Hoiland holds a reading intervention session on Jan. 23, 2019 with kindergarteners at Aragon Elementary in Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

ZIP code should not govern opportunity

“When you let ZIP codes determine opportunities, that can become really inequitable, especially when you look at parents’ pocketbooks,” he said. “At the district level, it becomes pretty nuanced.”

He added that nearly 97 percent of rural districts were dipping into their own local district money to subsidize full-day kindergarten because they viewed it as so vital. “They were cutting from elsewhere,” Jaeger said, stressing that the governor’s program will free up that money for other needs, such as teacher salaries or extra preschool.

Meanwhile, school districts are busy undergoing renovations and creating new classrooms for full-day programming.

In Boulder Valley, administrators are using money from a 2014 bond initiative to renovate all that county’s elementary schools to prepare for full-day kindergarten. All the schools there will be ready to offer the programming by the fall. Previously, Boulder Valley only offered credentialed full-day programming to about a third of the district’s kindergarten-aged students attending Title 1 schools, where high student poverty rates attracted extra federal aid.

In the metro Cherry Creek School District, with a lower student poverty rate than the state average, about $5.1 million is being spent to double the number of full-day kindergarten classrooms to 120. District officials expect they’ll recover at most $1.5 million of that cost from the state.

About a decade ago, Cherry Creek used federal aid to introduce full-day programming in six of its highest poverty schools. Families that send their children to wealthier schools in the district haven’t gotten the benefit of that free full-day programming. Many families ended up spending $320 a month to send children to full-day enrichment programs that don’t have credentialed teachers, or they enrolled their children in half-day programs for free.

Not only has Cherry Creek hired the kindergarten teachers it needs for the expansion, it is retraining the district’s first and second grade teachers to deal with a new student population that will be better prepared when they start primary grades, said Tony Poole, Cherry Creek’s executive director of student achievement services.

“This is going to be a beautifully equitable thing for all kids in kindergarten,” Poole said, “no matter their parental income.”