Colorado Governor Jared Polis

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis reads a book to Avon Elementary School kindergarteners during his school visit Feb. 1 in Avon.

While full-day kindergarten is a top priority for Gov. Jared Polis this year, for Republican Rep. Jim Wilson of Salida, Tuesday was a day he's waited for since 2014.

Beginning in the 2014 session, Wilson's zeal has been for free full-day kindergarten. From 2014 through 2018, however, his ideas have been shot down in the House, primarily in the House Appropriations Committee, due to its high price tag.

For the first three years he ran the kindergarten bill, he ran alone. But in 2018, he picked up Democratic Rep. Barbara McLachlan of Durango. Still, to no avail. The bill died, as it had before, in the appropriations committee.

And then along came Polis, and Wilson's full-day kindergarten bill was all of a sudden a priority for Democrats. 

That showed up on Tuesday when the House Education Committee unanimously, although with some misgivings from the committee's Republicans, approved House Bill 1262. 

The measure allows schools that up to now got 58 percent of full day funding for kindergarten to get all of it. Its price tag of $175 million still gives some lawmakers pause, and the bill's next step is its old nemesis, the House Appropriations Committee. But the governor's backing is likely to overcome some of that old resistance.

Tuesday's hearing was a love fest for those who believe full-day kindergarten will help children of all economic and social backgrounds.

Currently, the state pays for just over half a day of kindergarten. In some districts, like Brush, voters have approved mill levy overrides to cover the rest. In others, parents are charged tuition, and some testified Tuesday that the cost can be as high as $500 per month.

Those who showed up Tuesday sang the praises of all-day (and free) kindergarten: school principals and superintendents, members of the State Board of Education, charter school teachers and parents and members of the Colorado Education Association. No one testified against it.

As Wilson pointed out, the state has had an obligation since 2008 to fund full-day kindergarten for years, but it's taken more than a decade to get the last piece of the funding.

But even with all the cheerleading, there were some who warned that the costs may not be sustainable past next year.

Committee Republicans, including Rep. Colin Larson of Littleton, asked what will happen once the funding becomes part of the base for Colorado's 178 school districts and another recession hits.

Economists, including those in the governor's office of state planning and budgeting, recently warned that a recession is not far off, reducing their estimates for 2019-20 revenue by $250 million, more than the program's total cost.

Steve Durham, who represents the 5th Congressional District* on the State Board of Education, gave the bill an enthusiastic thumbs up, but not without heeding Larson's concerns about funding down the road, and where the cuts will hit hardest -- rural school districts.

Durham acknowledged that some districts will make out better on the funding than others, and that a recession is looming, but added that the state board of education "believes that this is a better investment than others that could be made."

Larson noted that once the funding is part of the base, lawmakers will have little choice than to make cuts to what's known as factors -- which addresses issues like at-risk kids -- and that will add to the shortfall known as the budget stabilization factor.

Lawmakers and governors have worked for the past several years to pay down the $1 billion debt to the state's public schools, but even with the $77 million payment in the 2019-20 budget, the budget stabilization factor is still just under $600 million. And rural schools have long complained that with their higher costs, cuts to their budgets are more dramatic than for larger school districts.

Among those singing the praises and ruing that it's taken so long to fully fund kindergarten: former Lt. Gov. Barbara O'Brien, who said she still has guilt over cuts to kindergarten funding that took place in the first years of the Great Recession.

Now a member of the Denver School Board of Education, O'Brien said "We've had a laser-like focus" on improving the quality of kindergarten, and said the Denver Public Schools program has has seen a large drop in the number of children behind grade level.

The kids who show the most improvement are English-language-learners, she said. Kids enrolled in full-day kindergarten are more likely to be on grade level, even above those who attend half-day kindergarten.

"I will die a happier person if I can get over the guilt of that cut by getting this through and in good shape," O'Brien said.

One question is what school districts will do if they can redirect some of the dollars they're currently using for full-day kindergarten.

Bill Wilson, superintendent of Brush, noted his district has a specific voter-approved mill levy override for all-day kindergarten. Once the state picks up the tab, he said, "we'll tell our voters thank you for standing in the gap while everyone else caught up."

But he also warned of the downside of dropping the mill levy: if the state hits another recession, rural schools cannot take the hit from an increase in the state budget stabilization factor.

He said it gives him pause when he thinks about another recession. "We won't go backwards," he said. "We can't afford to have [budget cuts] as an option on the table."

Principal Anthony Asmas of the Greeley-Evans school district said they'll be able to take the money currently spent on full-day kindergarten and redirect it into teacher salaries, for example. 

Wendy Birhanzel, superintendent of the Harrison district in El Paso County, called funding full-day kindergarten an ethical issue as an educational benefit. She noted her district does not charge parents for full-day kindergarten.

McLachlan told the committee that it will attract businesses and help teachers catch learning disabilities earlier. And Wilson became emotional for a moment when he described his years-long battle for the program. The state budget was $19.5 billion when the 2008 recession hit, he noted. It's now $30.5 billion and not one cent has gone to full-day kindergarten despite a state law that requires it. 

Ever the teacher, Wilson gave the committee and audience a brief history lesson on the driving of the Golden Spike. Despite conventional stories that it happened in Utah, it really happened in Strasburg, Colorado, Wilson said. When that happened, one of the officials said "little do you realize what you're done. You've changed commerce and finance of the whole world."

Wilson added that in passing House Bill 1262, "little will you realize what you've done" which is to "change the lives" of students and parents across Colorado.

Correction: An earlier version misidentified the district that Steve Durham represents on the State Board of Education.

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