Kindergarten students in an Aurora public school.

(Photo: Courtesy Aurora Public Schools)

Some Colorado lawmakers want to expand early childhood education opportunities in the state. Members of the House Education Committee on Monday agreed to send two bills that would do this to the full House for discussion. Both face a rocky future.

The trouble is both policies come with hefty price tags.

A Democratic proposal to create 3,000 more preschool slots would cost the state $11.3 million a year. That passed the House Education Committee on a party-line vote.

Full-day kindergarten for all Colorado children – sponsored by a Republican – comes at a cost of $236 million a year. That bill garnered more support, passing the committee 10-1.

Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida, sponsor of the kindergarten bill, asked his colleagues to leave budget concerns to the appropriations committee and instead just consider the policy.

"If we feel we want kindergarten and we feel it's important, then lets fund it. If we don't feel it's important, [we] probably ought to eliminate it," Wilson said, introducing his bill.

Eighty of Colorado’s 87 school districts offer full-day kindergarten, but they have to use a lot of local tax money to do it. The state only provides enough funding for half-day enrollment. If the state picked up the entire tab for kindergarten, schools could spend that money on other services.

"For us, providing a full-day kindergarten program is non-negotiable," Canon City Schools Superintendent Robin Gooldy told lawmakers. "Forty years ago, I think the expectation was that when a child left kindergarten, they'd be ready to learn how to read. The expectation nowadays is that they leave kindergarten already reading."

Preschool in demand

When it comes to preschool, Colorado currently only allocates enough money for 28,360 slots. That's a fraction of the low-income and at-risk children who are eligible for the program. Colorado ranks 38th in the nation for preschool enrollment.

Rep. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood, said the 3,000 slots her bill would add is  "far from the need, but it's moving in the right direction."

Pettersen's preschool bill ran into opposition from Rep. Wilson, who argued school districts should have the flexibility to decide whether to use the new money to expand kindergarten options instead.

However, according to Jennifer Landrum, head of the Denver Preschool Program, research shows children who attend both preschool and kindergarten part time do better in school than those who just get full-day kindergarten.

"Education is a continuum ... the earlier we start, the likelier we are to be able to close the achievement gap," said Landrum.

Two parents testified against the bills, arguing that expanded publicly-financed education is not the best way to get children ready for learning.

"I think when you start children into school too young, then they really get burnt out on school," said Donna Jack of Evergreen.

Bill Jaeger with the Colorado Children’s Campaign testified in favor of both bills, arguing early education reduces the need for public assistance programs down the road.

"We encourage you to take the long view and recognize the return on this investment is well understood and valued across programs here in the state," said Jaeger.

This story is part of our ongoing exploration of Colorado kids who are living in poverty, how it affects their lives and our common future. We'd like to hear your ideas about about what can be done about child poverty in Colorado. Share your thoughtsthrough our Public Insight Network.