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Struggle to afford kids, homes in Colorado could keep full-day kindergarten from busting education budget

After forecasters worried Gov. Polis' program could run a big deficit, demographic factors could keep kindergarten enrollment flat, or declining, in years to come.

Simla Elementary School kindergarten teacher Holly Koehn works with students at the Big Sandy School Monday, February 25, 2019. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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The number of kids enrolled in kindergarten across Colorado appears to have declined this school year, even with Gov. Jared Polis’ ambitious push for free full-day kindergarten in every school district.

Legislative budget forecasters expect that trend to continue, or that enrollment will remain flat, as birth rates decline and sky-high housing costs discourage young families from moving to metro Denver.

Legislative council staff presented an education budget outlook as part of a broader budget forecast to lawmakers last week, and while they didn’t cite specific enrollment numbers, they did reassure lawmakers that the implementation of free full-day kindergarten hasn’t caused the major deficit predicted earlier this year.

In funding Colorado’s public education system, the state underbudgeted by $9 million this spring, though that figure could change yet as numbers aren’t finalized until January, when the official results of the Oct. 2 pupil count are made public by the Colorado Department of Education.

A kindergartener at Downtown Denver Expeditionary School reads during class on January 31, 2019. (Cyrus McCrimmon for the Colorado Children’s Campaign)

It’s not clear how much of that funding gap was driven by the implementation of free full-day kindergarten, but it’s a major improvement from the $40 million shortfall forecast before the program rolled out.

The preliminary numbers are encouraging to Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood and policy initiatives at the nonprofit Colorado Children’s Campaign, who noted that the Joint Budget Committee last year put about $40 million in the state education fund as a precautionary measure in case enrollment was higher than expected.

“This shows us that they’re going to end up needing just a fraction of that,” Jaeger said.

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

Lawmakers budgeted based on the assumption that 85% of eligible children would enroll in kindergarten. Polis’ budget request projected 100% enrollment.

Polis’ spokesman Conor Cahill said in a texted statement last week that the cost of the program, according to the legislative council, “has come in at the midpoint of the estimated range.”

“The governor is extremely excited to see so many families voluntarily choosing to put their kids in free full-day kindergarten,” Cahill wrote.

Continuing to look ahead, legislative council staff are projecting flat enrollment for kindergarten and the rest of the K-12 system in the 2020-21 school year. 

They cited a decline in birth rates, which Jaeger said is a holdover from the Great Recession. 

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

The growth that does occur will be highest in northern Colorado and in the Colorado Springs region, thanks to promising job growth along with new and more affordable housing options that appeal to young families, the forecasters said in their report. 

Enrollment in metro Denver will drop as unaffordable housing curbs the number of families moving to the area, the forecast noted.

One consequence caused, in part, by stagnant enrollment figures: a lighter lift for the state in next year’s education budget. Forecasters project the state’s share of education funding will jump $78 million for the 2020-21 school year, which is less of an increase than in years past.