DENVER — One week into the job, Colorado Governor Jared Polis (D-Colorado) revealed his plan to pay for full-day kindergarten statewide.
Polis said Tuesday that he wants the state to spend $227 million to cover his plan, saying that it could be paid for because of an improved forecast on property tax collection. That updated outlook by the Governor's Office of State Planning and Budgeting projected $257 million more in the next 18 months.
Currently, Colorado funds half-day kindergarten for every child. If his plan is approved, parents could send their children to full-day kindergarten by fall.
According to Polis, his plan would free up $100 million that local school districts use to fund kindergarten. He said districts could now use this for other priorities, including teacher pay or reducing class sizes.
"This proposal leverages our improved economy and the recent updates in the estimates to benefit our schools and provide full-day kindergarten without impacting any of the other education budget priorities," Polis said.
"A lot of school districts are using their own funds to divert to pay for full-day kindergarten, and those funds will be freed up for other priorities, like teacher pay or class size," State Budget Executive Director Lauren Larson said.
The proposal also calls for $25 million for schools to utilize to implement full-day kindergarten, which involves curriculum and having enough space for the classrooms.
"In many instances they don't do it because they don't have enough space to do it, in other words they don't have the classroom space," Ken DeLay, Executive Director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, said.
School boards are the local elected committees that make funding decisions for local school districts.
Just because the Governor says the districts could increase teacher pay with funds that they currently use to pay for kindergarten, the districts wouldn't have to do that.
"Seventy-five, 80 percent of their budget is in personnel, and somewhere well north of 50 percent is in teachers, so I think we can count on the fact that most of the money is going to go to those places," DeLay said. "I don't know that there's any reason any district would not want to participate. There might be other challenges, I do think, for especially some of our more remote districts, finding people that will come for the salary that they pay may be a challenge, but I think the primary issue is going to be space."
The Colorado State Board of Education on Thursday approved a resolution supporting the proposal.
“The proposal doesn’t create a new mandate for districts or for parents, but it enables districts to offer free, full-day kindergarten for all, and it will help ensure all students are on the path to success,” said Vice Chairman Steve Durham.
There is another challenge. Lawmakers who control the state's piggy bank. Democrats who sit on the powerful Joint Budget Committee are already pumping the brakes.
"We don't want to create any more unfunded mandates for our districts, so whatever we do, we want to make sure that we're being fiscally prudent in the outlying years because if we fund it this year, then we need to make sure that we're funding it in the out years too," Joint Budget Committee member Sen. Rachel Zenzinger (D-Arvada) said. "It's not necessarily something off the table to phase something like full-day kindergarten in."
Joint Budget Committee chairman Sen. Dominick Moreno (D-Commerce City) said his party supports the idea of full-day kindergarten, but is mindful that the state has other needs.
"The Governor's budget doesn't really touch on transportation, for example, and that's something we've heard loud and clear from our constituents, that they are tired of sitting in traffic, that they want a better infrastructure," Moreno said.
"My biggest disappointment is that I was hoping that we might have just some things to look at, some things to consider, so I think now at this point, it's back on the legislature to figure out how we move forward with regard to transportation," Zenzinger said.
Polis also said that funding full-day kindergarten will help preschool availability as well.
"Full funding of kindergarten by itself frees up 5,100 preschool slots that are currently used to backfill kindergarten. On top of the 5,100, we are adding an additional 3,000 preschool slots to address the weight list for preschool in our state," said Polis.
How's that work?
"A number of districts are using the preschool slot funds to help fund their kindergarten," DeLay said. "As they are permitted to do."
The budget also calls for the state spending a little more than a million dollars to start a program for anyone to purchase cheaper prescription drugs from Canada.
His proposal also calls for tripling the amount of money former Gov. Hickenlooper had requested for the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
Hickenlooper had requested $600,000 for one new oil and gas inspector and four other staff for the oil and gas commission. Polis is requesting a total of $1.8 million for five new inspectors and 16 total new employees.
The governor will recommend his changes to the budget committee Wednesday. Then, it's up to lawmakers to decide how to divvy up the money.