Tuition-Free, Full-Day Kindergarten Commences in Colorado

Oct 15, 2019 by

Colorado Governor Jared Polis wrote an op-ed kicking off the school year, lauding the successes, and reaffirming the necessity of full-day kindergarten. When asked why early education took precedence over other needs, Polis responded, “Because as a former school administrator, former chair of the state school board, and parent to two young children, I can tell you that full-day kindergarten is a transformational investment for our economy, families, taxpayers, our schools, and most importantly, our kids.”

In his campaign for the governorship, Polis pledged state funding for free, universal, full-day kindergarten and pre-K within two years. This ambitious goal was met with skepticism from some legislators and community members eyeing the $227 million price tag proposed in his 2019 State of the State address.

Nevertheless, in May, Governor Polis signed into law state funding for full-day kindergarten (FDK). The Full-Day Kindergarten Act tweaks the formula that funds kindergarten programs, giving them complete funding and equal status like other public school programs, instead of the partial funding they used to receive. There is still, however, flexibility for schools, districts, and families. While schools and districts are no longer allowed to charge parents fees to cover a portion of the day, they are not obligated to offer full-day programs. Districts not offering full-day kindergarten classes in 2019-2020 must submit a plan to the Colorado Department of Education detailing how they might phase in full-day programming. Those maintaining half-day status will continue to receive half-day funding for each student, with some supplemental program funding. FDK enrollment is entirely voluntary.

The Centennial State is among 28 others that require public school districts to offer only half-day kindergarten programming and 33 states that do not mandate kindergarten enrollment.

With an enormous influx of new students in Colorado’s schools, new facilities and furnishings are needed. The legislature remedied this by passing HB – 19-1055, with $50 million appropriated for public school construction, as well as $25 million specifically appropriated for the full-day kindergarten facility capital construction fund. Construction projects will be largely funded by Colorado’s marijuana excise tax, through the state’s previously established Building Excellent Schools Today (BEST) grant program.

This legislation has already had an impact on early childhood education in Colorado. More than 5,000 state-funded pre-K spots that school districts once repurposed to cover the costs of the second half of the kindergarten day will be put towards their original purpose. Some of these half-day pre-K spots are being turned into full-day spots, encouraged by a new study showing the positive impact of full-day pre-K in Colorado. In districts where free FDK was already instated, the state investment can be channeled towards other needs. For example, some Denver-area districts report that the state funds will allow them to put extra money towards expanding early childhood education programs and increasing teacher salaries.

Perhaps most importantly though, the FDK tuition reform will allow an estimated 30,000 families to avoid fees of $300-500 each month. Colorado is now one of 39 states that ban tuition for kindergarten, largely because of the inequities in opportunity it creates. All children, regardless of family income or their district’s ability to piece together funding streams, will now have access to high-quality, free pre-primary education.

The transition has not come without disruption. There have been complications with funding and timing. Schools and districts scrambled to increase capacity and provide programming or risk losing the funding opportunity altogether. The demand from families outpaced some schools’ ability to create enough classrooms and hire enough teachers in such a short timeframe. Plus, the loss of tuition payments left some districts struggling to cover the difference. According to the Denver Post, the Douglas County School District will receive around $3.9 million for the state per-pupil rate, which is $600,000 less than what they would collect in tuition from families. The district found the needed funds, but remains unsure about future sustainability.

Part of the shortfall is due to the legislature providing only a portion of Polis’ original proposal, anticipating that 85 percent of eligible children would enroll in FDK. Opponents were wary of spending over $200 million on kindergarten and questioned whether the investment would be sustainable during an economic downturn. Instead, the act appropriated around $183 million for full-day kindergarten program costs in the 2019-20 fiscal year. Per their agreement, however, if more funding is needed and participation levels are as high as local school administrators estimate, then funding levels may be increased through a mid-year budget adjustment.

As Colorado legislators make appropriation decisions in the coming months, they should not underestimate the importance of full-day kindergarten or families’ eagerness to participate in early learning programs. Studies have shown that children who attend full-day kindergarten have better gains in both math and reading than those who do not. This is especially true for children who are dual language learners. And, when a full-day is provided, there is more time for learning in subject areas beyond reading and math like science, history, geography, art, music, and technology. Aside from desired academic benefits, parents tend to prefer full-day kindergarten for their children and advocate to keep it when their school districts consider which programs to cut.

Extra class time alone is not enough; educators and schools need to be intentional about how they use the new time. Teachers will need resources to deliver instruction and experiences that match how young children learn best. Funding levels will need to be adjusted in response to results from the October pupil count, amidst concerns of overcommitments in spending from lawmakers and analysts. We’ll be following Colorado’s implementation and looking for examples of great kindergarten experiences, but for now, it seems like full-day kindergarten is off to a promising start.

Source: Tuition-Free, Full-Day Kindergarten Commences in Colorado

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