Rising property values around Colorado will bring in enough money to pay for full-day kindergarten without cuts to other programs, Gov. Jared Polis said in a budget letter released Tuesday.

Funding full-day kindergarten is a top priority for Polis, who said in his opening address to lawmakers that he wants to get it done by next fall.

The additional cost for the state to pay the same per kindergarten student as for older students is $227 million a year. The governor’s budget director Lauren Larson said the most recent economic forecast shows school districts bringing in significantly more local property tax, which in turn means the state doesn’t need to backfill as much revenue. That frees up enough money both to pay for kindergarten and to earmark an additional $92 million for education during future economic downtowns.

At the same time, Larson said revenue is stable enough that it can support a major program expansion like full-day kindergarten into the future.

Polis said his budget maintains most of the spending laid out by his predecessor, John Hickenlooper, in November, except “we add our priority of funding full-day kindergarten. We do so in a fiscally responsible way that would deposit money in the state education fund as well as keeping a healthy reserve to minimize the need for any cuts to education during economic downturns.”

Polis will present his budget request to the legislature’s Joint Budget Committee Wednesday. Some members of that influential committee have expressed concern about paying for full-day kindergarten. Democratic leaders in the Colorado General Assembly say they want to see the March economic forecast before finalizing education spending.

Right now, the state reimburses districts for a little more than a half-day of instruction. What districts do varies widely around the state and even within districts. Some districts charge parents tuition, some offer half-day programming, and some offer full-day programs at no cost to parents either with dedicated local taxes, with federal funds designated for high-poverty schools, or out of their general operating budget.

In his budget letter, Polis said that 30,000 families in Colorado pay tuition for kindergarten. The Colorado Department of Education said it doesn’t track that information or have a comprehensive list of how districts that are paying for kindergarten find the money. The estimate from the governor’s office is derived from tuition revenue collected by school districts for both preschool and kindergarten. 

Statewide, nearly 50,000 kindergarten students attend full-day programs in public schools and another 13,000 attend half-day programs. The districts where not all students attend full-day kindergarten or where parents pay tuition include some of the largest districts in the state and some that serve relatively affluent student populations.

In Denver, parents pay tuition according to a sliding scale. A family of four earning less than $45,500 pays nothing. All 6,700 kindergarten students in the state’s largest district attend a full-day program, according to the state education department.

In Douglas County, schools set their own tuition rates, with district-run neighborhood schools charging $350 a month this year. Families that qualify for subsidized lunches are exempt. In Jeffco, some schools don’t charge at all while others charge $300 a month, according to the district’s website, and most students attend a full-day program. Schools make their own determinations based on their budgets, a spokeswoman said.

In the Boulder Valley, just eight elementary schools offer full-day programs. They’re schools that serve students from low-income families and are eligible for extra federal funds — or were previously eligible. The wealthy district has twice as many students in half-day programs as in full-day, according the state education department.

Meanwhile, districts that serve large numbers of students living in poverty, like Pueblo City Schools and Greeley, offer full-day kindergarten at no cost to all their students, according to the governor’s office.

Greeley spokeswoman Theresa Myers said the district uses a combination of state money to support struggling readers and general fund money to pay for kindergarten.

“We have prioritized full day kinder as the best intervention we can offer to get our students on track as early as possible,” she said in an email. “That said, we would certainly appreciate it if the state would full fund us for our full-day kindergarten. It would definitely free up dollars for other areas of need, such as social emotional supports and teachers.”

Polis identified a number of benefits of the state encouraging the adoption of full-day kindergarten: saving parents and districts money and freeing up more preschool slots by saving state funds in another subsidy program.The budget proposal estimates paying for kindergarten would free up $100 million in districts across the state.

“This change reaches families everywhere,” Larson said. “There are families paying tuition who cannot afford it, whether it is thought of as a wealthier district or not, and there are a lot of districts using their own funds to pay for full-day kindergarten, and those funds will be freed up to pay for other priorities.”

Polis has said this is not a mandate. Districts won’t be required to offer full-day kindergarten, and parents won’t be required to enroll their children.

Polis is asking for an additional $25.7 million to help districts offset the cost of implementing full-day kindergarten. This one-time money would be distributed as a 5 percent per-student bonus and could be spent on curriculum, classroom supplies, or classroom adaptations.

Polis’ budget request also includes $2 million for reduce dropout rates in the high schools with the lowest graduation rates and holds tuition at state colleges and universities flat. He also requests $6.5 million to pay for loan forgiveness for teachers who work in rural areas and maintains $10 million in requests for principal training and other educational programs.

Polis’ proposal keeps the budget stabilization factor or “negative” factor” proposed by Hickenlooper. That means $595 million would be withheld from K-12 education to meet other budget priorities. Colorado’s constitution requires the legislature to increase education spending according to population growth and inflation, but lawmakers have held back money every year since the Great Recession. That so-called negative factor for 2019-20 is $77 million less than was withheld this fiscal year and 40 percent less than in 2012-13, the year in which the negative factor was the largest.  

Read the entire budget proposal here.