Gov. Jared Polis on Wednesday urged lawmakers to act quickly on his plan to offer state-funded full-day kindergarten.
Polis told the Joint Education Committee his $227 million plan is a foundation of his new administration's plans to boost the state's chronically underfunded schools, eliminate inequities among school districts, allow local districts to invest in teacher pay and hiring and help struggling families.
"It's time to make the state a full partner with our (school) districts," Polis said. "We simply need to ensure that kindergarten is treated as the critical part of our public education infrastructure that it is."
Colorado currently pays for half-day kindergarten, and it underfunds its public school system by hundreds of millions of dollars each year. Local districts that do offer full-day kindergarten either pay for it from local property taxes, use funding otherwise designed for preschool and other programs, or charge families for it.
Polis, who has founded charter schools for disadvantaged students, has asked for $227 million for full-day kindergarten to start this fall. Funds for that and $25 million in implementation costs would come from surplus tax revenue lawmakers have to work with this session.
Families would be given the choice to opt in to the program. The governor and education advocates note early childhood education allows disadvantaged children to catch up to their peers early and, in the longer run, reduces high school drop-out rates.
Polis said he was confident the initial investment will be made permanent. School districts will be able to free up $100 million spent on kindergarten to pay for teachers and infrastructure, he said. State investments in school reserves and having legislative budget writers ensure future surpluses go to those reserves will make it permanent, he said.
Polis' budget request for the fiscal year that starts July 1 includes lowering the state debt owed to public schools by $77 million. Lawmakers have worked around a constitutional amendment requiring annual increases in school funding by creating an "IOU" that allows them to deliver a balanced budget each year that also is required by the state constitution.
Polis noted that former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy, his senior adviser for fiscal policy, is studying options for asking Colorado voters to invest more tax dollars in education. Voters have defeated several such initiatives in recent years.
The governor said he was certain most districts have the resources to expand to full-day kindergarten and ensure quality instruction. He said he'd work with districts and the state education department to address shortfalls once the plan is instituted.
To that end, he urged lawmakers to act quickly to ensure his request is included in next year's budget so that districts may start to take advantage of the funding in July.
Fifteen states and the District of Columbia offer full-day kindergarten, according to the National Council of State Legislatures.
Polis and fellow Democrats who control the Legislature also are pursuing tax credits and loan incentive programs to recruit teachers, dual enrollment programs so high school students can more quickly earn community college degrees or university credits, and apprenticeships in lucrative trades that don't necessitate a college education.