School administrators anticipate near-universal attendance in free, full-day kindergarten this fall, a state survey found, which would blow a $40 million hole in the budget Colorado lawmakers set for the first year of the new program.
In the last school year, 36 of the Colorado’s 178 school districts had students enrolled in half-day kindergarten programs, according to the survey. All but one of those districts and one charter school network plan to move to all full-day kindergarten classes in the next school year, the survey by the Colorado Department of Education further found.
The rapid adoption rate by districts that previously enrolled students in half-day classes could signal budget trouble for the top policy issue Gov. Jared Polis pushed through the legislature this year.
“The news that more school districts and families will take advantage of full-day kindergarten is great news for our state and parents,” Conor Cahill, the governor’s spokesman, said Friday in an emailed statement. “Full-day kindergarten has been long overdue in Colorado, will improve student outcomes, save families money and help our economy.”
State lawmakers set aside $175 million from the general fund to cover operational costs related to full-day K in school districts, but that sum assumed an 85% attendance rate statewide. The legislature also agreed to use $25 million in marijuana sales tax revenue for school districts to buy furniture and make other upgrades to accommodate full-day programs.
The CDE survey found that local school administrators instead project attendance statewide in full-day K will come in at 99% in the 2019-20 school year, based on attendance rates recorded in districts where full-day K is already the norm.
“That is going to have an impact,” said Jennifer Okes, the chief operating officer in the school finance division of the Colorado Department of Education. “It’s going to be big.”
The survey results show local school administrators believe the legislature’s assumptions for funding the program weren’t accurate, she added.
“I think most of the kids in the state will have full-day kindergarten based on the responses on what the school districts plan to implement,” Okes said, adding that the state’s lawmakers never sought CDE’s help to determine what total attendance for full-day K would end up being.
If the survey predictions are accurate, the full-day K program will have significant shortfalls in funding, as much as $40 million for the entire school year.
Polis’ original request sought funding for 100% attendance in the coming school year and projected if attendance came in lower, any savings could be set aside for other educational purposes. But lawmakers, who cited attendance rates in other states, shaved about $42 million from Polis’ original $227 million budget. They also believed some districts would be slow to adopt full-day programming.
If a funding shortfall occurs, the Joint Budget Committee, made up of lawmakers who write the state budget, will have some discretionary money to draw on. This year, the budget writers recommended taking about $40.3 million from the state’s general fund and stashing it in the state education fund for future educational purposes.
The legislature agreed to go along with the recommendation and bolstered the state education fund. If a budget shortfall emerges once actual attendance rates for full-day K become known, the JBC will have to consider making midyear funding adjustments.
“There is always a true up after the count each year to address higher or lower student counts, and last year we came in lower than expected,” Cahill said. “We always anticipated a supplemental (budget adjustment) after the October count date, and we look forward to working with the General Assembly to address any positive or negative differences in projected funding across the entire K-12 system at that time.”
State Rep. Kim Ransom, a Republican budget writer who represents Littleton, said she opposed the full-day K legislation in part because she feared lawmakers were lowballing projected attendance. She said she’s heard attendance projections now are coming in higher than the funding anticipated, though she has not received a final briefing.
“It was hard to predict the utilization rate that we would see, and there was some uncertainty as to the continuation of the money,” Ransom said. “That was part of my larger concerns.
Some of the money being used I saw as unsustainable.”
Using the $40.3 million the legislature placed in the state’s educational fund might cause issues down the road, Ransom said. “To wipe out that much money all at once just because funding estimates ended up being lower than what actually happened leaves us in a very difficult position to navigate our way out of in the event of future emergencies,” she said.
State Rep. Chris Hansen, a Democrat from Denver on the budget committee, said he and other lawmakers recently started “hearing there was going to be a higher implementation rate” for the full-day K program than the initial funding supported.
He said lawmakers “will have a number of tools that we can use to adjust funding, both midyear and at the end of the year.”
The CDE survey found that In the last school year, 424 schools had slightly more than 13,300 students enrolled in half-day kindergarten. Only four of those schools don’t plan to offer full-day kindergarten for the 2019-20 school year, the local administrators said in the survey.
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Charter School Institute will have full-day K in 10 of its schools this fall and will install full-day in one other school in the future. One other school in its network doesn’t plan to offer full-day K.
St. Vrain Valley will offer full-day K in 26 of 28 schools, but the remaining two schools will move to full-day programming in the future.
All other schools in the state plan to offer full-day K.
The free, full-day kindergarten program was one of Polis’ top policy goals in the last legislative session.
In the past, Colorado’s per-pupil funding for kindergarteners was a little more than half that for kids in higher grades. School districts approached that discrepancy in different ways. Some used local funding to offer free full-day programming for students. Others charged parents tuition. Some didn’t offer full-day K at all, but offered free half-day programs.
Under the law passed by the legislature, school districts will receive the same amount of money for kindergarten students as they receive for older students. School districts also will be barred from charging parents tuition to attend full-day K. Parents don’t have to send their children to full-day K if they don’t want to, and school districts still get to decide whether they want to offer full-day programming.