Colorado Just Started Paying For Full-Day Kindergarten. The Budget Crisis Could Threaten It

Courtesy Aurora Public Schools
Kindergarten students in an Aurora public school.

Colorado’s budget crisis threatens one of Governor Jared Polis’ biggest first-term accomplishments. 

The state legislature’s Joint Budget Committee on Wednesday said they haven’t ruled out the possibility of rolling back funding for full-day kindergarten. If they proceed in that direction, it could be the beginning of an intense political fight about how to keep paying for education while the state budget implodes.

“It’s certainly very painful to be talking about this program. Our public schools are already funded at such a low level in this state as compared to other states in the nation,”  said Democratic Rep. Julie McCluskie, a member of the JBC, adding that she was proud of the program’s early progress.

The state dramatically expanded kindergarten access last fall under a new state law. It offered $175 million to help school districts offer free, full-day kindergarten. Until then, the state only provided partial funding for kindergarten -- forcing parents in some districts to pay hundreds of dollars in monthly tuition, if they had a full-day option at all.

The new law was widely celebrated and contributed to a significant leap in full-day kindergarten enrollment in its first year

If the funding were dropped, school districts might be allowed to return to charging tuition “on a limited basis,” said Democratic Sen. Dominick Moreno. But it’s “just one option,” he stressed. The JBC hasn’t made a recommendation on the topic.

“There’s broad bipartisan support for minimizing impacts on K-12 education, so we’re making any and all reductions possible before going there,” Moreno added in a text message.

Polis urged lawmakers to look elsewhere, saying he was committed to full-day kindergarten. 

“Now is certainly not the time for Coloradans to have to worry about hundreds of dollars per month coming out of their already thin pocketbooks to pay for their child’s education,” he said. 

“In addition, at a time in which we are concerned about learning loss and ensuring parents are able to go back to work, cutting free full-day kindergarten will move us backwards when we need to move forward."

The fact that kindergarten is anywhere near the chopping block shows just how fast the state's finances have deteriorated. On Tuesday, lawmakers learned they have just six weeks to close a $3.3 billion dollar shortfall before the next fiscal year begins.

“We're already in a pretty tough position here, and I have to assume there’s going to be some very tough discussion about school finance,” said JBC staffer Craig Harper.

School funding faces a big squeeze

Schools get a certain amount of money from income tax collections and federal mineral leases. Those funds could fall by about $178 million in the fiscal year beginning July 1, or about 41%, compared to last year’s budget.

Meanwhile, the economic disaster is increasing funding demands for schools. Colorado’s laws give more state money to school districts who have at-risk students -- a figure that will increase as the recession drives more families toward poverty.

The combination -- less money, more demands -- means that, under current laws, the state government would have to find hundreds of millions of dollars from its general fund to make up the gap. But the general fund is in terrible shape too: Practically every source of state revenue is plummeting, and lawmakers are preparing for cuts to every department, including education.

Alternatively, the legislature could rewrite the state’s school finance rules, potentially including the full-day kindergarten law, to reduce the funding they have to provide for schools.

“I think we’ve seen the JBC and lawmakers looking at the K-12 budget in its entirety, and full-day kindergarten is one of the components of the budget,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association.

K-12 schools make up more than a third of the general budget, and they attract more passionate arguments than perhaps any other issue in state government -- a recipe for an intense fight ahead.

“I think that it’s going to be front and center, for sure,” said Luke Ragland, president of Ready Colorado, an education advocacy group. This recession could be “wildly worse” for kids than earlier downturns, he said, because of the long-term consequences of staying at home for months. 

That’s a reason to support kindergarten and other programs, he argued, warning that the poorest families would be hardest hit by cuts to schools.

“Wealthy families are going to find ways to supplement. They’re going to find ways to get caught up whether their schools are open or closed,” Ragland said.

All options on the table

The National Education Association says that free full-day kindergarten makes children happier and healthier, and prepares them better for first grade. It also spares working parents the cost of child care.

Ragland suggested that lawmakers instead tweak the school funding formula to reduce geographic cost-of-living adjustments. That’s part of the other major money-saving option: Instead of reducing the number of students, the legislature could change the formula that distributes money to districts, which looks at student demographics and other factors.

JBC lawmakers said they weren’t eager to consider the cuts. “It’s going to be a real challenge to be able to maintain all of the great programs as well as maintain our jobs for our educators, our educator professionals,” McCluskie said.

Any changes to school finance laws would have to be approved by the legislature, and Gov. Polis could use his veto to reshape them. The JBC may recommend an overall reduction and have the full legislature debate how to get there, Moreno said.

McCluskie and other Democrats argued on Wednesday that the TABOR tax law had left the state with few resources to survive a recession, even though the government has built up its reserve over the past decade. 

TABOR requires the state government to send refunds to taxpayers when it brings in too much money, money that could have been saved instead, Democrats said. Colorado has issued those refunds a handful of times in the past two decades.

Lawmakers also could try to raise taxes to replace lost revenue. TABOR allows lawmakers to create an emergency tax, according to the Colorado Fiscal Institute, but only if they fully exhaust emergency reserves and get two-thirds approval from the legislature -- a difficult task.

Baca-Oehlert said lawmakers should consider that option, but she’s also holding out hope that voters will approve a potential tax measure on this November’s ballot.

“We are doing all that we can to make sure those cuts are kept furthest away from students, whose needs are really great,” she said. “It’s certainly a devastating conversation, and there are no good choices.”