Governor Jared Polis has been pushing for free full-day kindergarten statewide since his first weeks in office — and now the $185 million proposal is close to the finish line, with a start date next fall.
Such an expansion would be a big change for Colorado — placing more young students in full-day instead of half-day classes, eliminating full-day kindergarten tuition payments for thousands of families, and in school districts that already cover the cost of full-day programming, freeing up dollars for other needs.
Although Colorado hasn’t been a front-runner on full-day kindergarten, the governor’s proposal could help it catch up to states at the front of the pack. Polis himself is mindful of the gap between Colorado’s kindergarten policies and those in states that have tackled expansion earlier and more aggressively.
In describing his full-day kindergarten ambitions, he wrote in the state budget proposal, “Oklahoma figured this out a long time ago. And with all due respect to our wonderful neighbors in the Sooner state, if they can do it, so can we.”
Here’s a look at how Colorado fits into the national kindergarten landscape.
Colorado has been slower than many other states to prioritize full-day kindergarten.
About a dozen states, mostly in the South and East, have been ahead of the curve on the full-day kindergarten front. Think Louisiana, Tennessee, Maryland, West Virginia, and South Carolina, to name a handful. All of them require districts to offer full-day kindergarten and run it for the same number of hours as first grade, according to a 2016 report from the Education Commission of the States. They also ban schools from charging tuition.
In Colorado, a low-tax state with lower-than-average school funding, none of these things are true. Experts say money has been biggest stumbling block in establishing a universal full-day kindergarten program statewide. While state leaders were poised to phase in full-day kindergarten a decade ago under Democratic Governor Bill Ritter, they never funded the effort after the Great Recession hit.
Things are different now. The economy is humming and the state’s top leader has promoted early education out of the gate.
“When the economy is good, states expand their spending and that’s what we’re seeing in Colorado,” said Emily Parker, senior policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States.
In Colorado 80 percent of kindergarteners attend full-day programs. In West Virginia, it’s 100 percent. Here’s why.
West Virginia first required school districts to exclusively offer full-day kindergarten in the mid-1990s, and is often held up as a national model for its kindergarten policies. In addition to mandating full-day kindergarten, the state funds it at the same level as other grades and requires the same number of hours as is required for first-graders.
“Back in the ’90s we just had a governor and legislature that really saw the value in early childhood programs,” said Kristin Anderson, spokeswoman for the West Virginia Department of Education.
Today, she said, free full-day kindergarten and free full-day preschool, which 76% of the state’s 4-year-olds attend, are part of the fabric of the state’s education system.
Anderson said the state’s investment in full-day preschool and kindergarten has also helped move the needle on literacy.
“We’ve seen really big strides because of that foundation in the early years,” she said.
Besides Colorado, seven other states have full-day kindergarten legislation in the pipeline.
California, Georgia, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania all have full-day kindergarten legislation pending, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Most of the bills would require school districts to provide full-day kindergarten to all students, though deadlines and other details vary. For example, New York would move all kindergarten classes to a full-day schedule by 2021-22, while Massachusetts would give schools till the fall of 2024. In addition to mandating full-day programs, some states, including Georgia and New Jersey, would make kindergarten attendance compulsory.
In a variation on this legislative theme, New Hampshire passed a law in 2017 to increase its financial investment in full-day kindergarten. Lawmakers there agreed to increase full-day kindergarten funding from half the state’s standard per-pupil allocation to about 80 percent of that amount, with the possibility that lottery proceeds could boost the percentage in future years.
Amid the flurry of legislative activity on full-day kindergarten, there have also been some fails. A Virginia bill that would have required school districts to draft plans to fund and phase in full-kindergarten for all students died in last year’s legislative session.
Colorado’s proposed bill would ban kindergarten tuition. If passed, it would join a majority of states in having this policy.
If Colorado’s full-day kindergarten legislation passes, the state would join about 40 others in banning schools from charging parents tuition for the program. (The caveat here is that schools could go back to charging tuition if the legislature ever stops fully funding full-day kindergarten.)
Currently, Colorado’s school finance formula allocates 58 percent of its standard per-pupil amount for kindergarteners. Some districts cover the remaining cost of full-day classes themselves and others charge parents $200-$400 a month to bridge the gap. State officials estimate that 30,000 Colorado families currently pay tuition for full-day kindergarten.
Advocates say incorporating the tuition ban into state law sends a message that full-day kindergarten is a key piece of Colorado’s public school system, not an optional extra.
“It says that we actually have a full K through 12 system,” said Krista Spurgin, executive director of Stand for Children Colorado, part of a coalition advocating for the full-day kindergarten expansion.
“We would never say that we should fund half of eighth grade,” she said.
Even after this expansion, full-day kindergarten won’t be mandatory in Colorado — for districts or for students.
While Gov. Polis’ kindergarten plan will give thousands more children easy access to full-day kindergarten and put kindergarten on equal footing with other grades when it comes to funding, it doesn’t go quite as far as states like West Virginia have.
Colorado law would still allow school districts to offer half-day kindergarten programs and wouldn’t require children to attend kindergarten at all. Spurgin said such options grow out of the state’s local control ethos, but doesn’t expect they’ll have much practical effect. With the money available, the vast majority of districts will provide full-day classes and the vast majority of parents will send their kids, she said.
The state’s full-day kindergarten proposal also wouldn’t require full-day kindergarteners to spend as much time in class as other elementary students. Current rules require 900 annual hours for full-day kindergarten and 990 for other elementary grades. While many districts run full-day kindergarten on the same schedule as other grades, there could be an average difference of 30 minutes daily. The pending bill doesn’t address the difference in time requirements. Again, this doesn’t amount to a major practical difference, but it does contrast with the equal instruction time mandates in more than half the states.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.