Gov. Jared Polis told a joint meeting of the state legislature’s education committees that funding full-day kindergarten in Colorado is an opportunity to prevent persistent learning gaps that fall along racial, economic and geographic lines.
“Across the state we see in many ways that picture of inequality,” Polis said Monday in his first formal presentation to lawmakers on one of his top priorities.
Colorado funds just over half of a day of kindergarten — 0.58 percent to be precise. That means some school districts pay for free full-day kindergarten, while others charge families for the second half of the day; a handful of districts don’t offer full-day kindergarten.
Polis’ pitch is $227 million to fund full-day for all schools that wish to offer it and that it will benefit children, schools, the economy and families. Those that pay for kindergarten would then find extra money in their pockets. They would no longer have to scrimp and save to cover the cost.
“It means they’re not saving for their child’s college education,” he said. “They’re not saving for their own retirement. It is a real cost for young families.”
The other side of the governor’s argument is that up to $100 million in district money could be freed up for local school priorities like teacher salaries or reducing class sizes. And, he contends, it also addresses inequity within large school districts like Jefferson County and Denver.
Title I schools with 75 percent or more student considered low-income receive federal funds, which enables them to offer free full-day kindergarten. But schools where half the students are considered low-income, they don’t qualify for additional federal funds and must charge parents for the half day.
“So if you’re at a school that’s 80 percent low income, you may get it. But again, at a school that’s 50 percent low income, even if you are a low income family, you don’t get it, can’t afford it.”
The issue of full-day kindergarten has been a contentious one, especially with tight state budgets. But Polis said better than expected tax returns makes now the right time.
The education committee gave Polis a positive reception.
Some asked the new governor about his commitment to reduce the debt to schools, known as the budget stabilization factor or the “negative factor.” Polis reiterated his commitment of $77 million to districts out of this year’s $620 million state budget shortfall to schools. Cumulatively, the legislature has withheld $7.5 billion from the state’s public schools since 2008.
In a positive sign for Polis, Republican Rep. Jim Wilson, who has lobbied for full-day kindergarten funding for several years, noted the “historical” nature of his visit to a joint education committee meeting.
“This is my seventh year here and this is the first time that we’ve had a governor that took the time and the courtesy to come and talk to us up here and share this information and be open and forthright and forthcoming.”