An Unbiased Assessment of Full-Time Kindergarten in Colorado

In January, Colorado Governor Jared Polis requested special funding for full-time kindergarten to be taken out of the unexpected tax gains in 2018. His proposal has generated a lot of discussion in the weeks since the announcement.

Some feel that the price of such a service would be too large for the state to support over the long-term. Those who support the legislation believe that the benefits to the state will outweigh the costs. But even those in support argue about exactly how the funding should be used.

With the goal of funding FY 2019–2020, legislators will need to make a final decision by late spring, so that school districts can begin allocating funds for personnel, physical space, and more by July 1. What should they decide?

We will look at both sides in detail so that you can decide for yourself.

Context: History helps to answer the why now question

Residents who’ve joined the state in the last ten years might not recall that full-time kindergarten was part of Colorado’s Public School Finance Act of 1995. That piece of legislation outlined full-time funding for a specified proportion of preschoolers.

During the Recession however, this provision was deemed too expensive for the state to uphold, and in FY 2008–2009 the state amended funding, replacing the clause with a “hold harmless” provision.

The provision ensured that all kindergartners then covered would be covered in future years; however, it also stipulated that the number of slots would remain the same, rather than grow in accordance with student populations. To this day, Colorado still pays for 2,454 full-day kindergarten slots, according to the Public School Finance Booklet (Colorado General Assembly, 2018).

The new budget proposal would significantly revamp the preschool program by:

  1. Adding slots for at-risk children
  2. Accepting more 3-year olds
  3. Offering more full-day slots
  4. Rewarding top-rated preschool providers with more money

Currently, a handful of school districts do not offer full-day kindergarten, and some that do, including Denver Public Schools (DPS) charge up to $500 monthly in tuition.

Now that Colorado is undergoing surplus revenues as taxes are coming in above expectations, legislators are reconsidering the hold harmless provision. The decision is whether we continue to fund and even expand access to full-time kindergarten, or to stick with what we know we will be able to afford over the long-term.

How does Colorado compare with other states?

Most states pay for half-time Kindergarten, but only 12 states and the District of Columbia, or roughly 1 out of every 4, require full-time Kindergarten. They are:

  • Alabama
  • Arkansas
  • Delaware
  • District of Columbia
  • Hawaii
  • Louisiana
  • Maryland
  • Mississippi
  • North Carolina
  • Oklahoma
  • Rhode Island
  • Tennessee
  • Washington

Data from Education Commission of the States, 2018

Colorado is among three states currently that support some full-time and some half-time Kindergarten. (Illinois and Montana are the other two.) This makes Colorado’s Kindergarten above average as it stands now. Enacting this new budget would shift CO into the top 25%.

Why Should Colorado Value Preschool Education More than Other States?

Proponents and opponents alike point to Colorado’s immigrant population as a key influencer in this debate. Colorado has a larger number of immigrant residents than many other states, and a large number of English-language learners who require basic English skills.

In late January, the Denver Post’s Doug Friednash, the former Chief of Staff to Governor Hickenlooper, published a controversial article that was pro-full-time kindergarten, claiming that the annual investment is small in comparison to the impact this money would have, especially on low-income and minority students.

The economic payback argument hinges on the link between education and lifetime earnings. High school dropouts earn an average of $27,200 per year and are much more likely to go to prison than peers who obtained a high-school diploma. Diploma holders earn $36,800 per year, almost $10,000 more per year, just for graduating from high school. Going to college does even more for income, and graduating from college can effectively eliminate the earnings gap between students from low-income and high-income backgrounds.

If education turns into income, then that means more tax dollars for the state. But if you accept this argument, then why are most states paying for half-time but not full-time Kindergarten?

Colorado is a special case because we need more diploma holders and more college graduates in our workforce. In fact, this unique predicament has a name, the Colorado Paradox. We have one of the most educated workforces in the country; we also have one of the lowest rates of graduating students from college. Local businesses typically import skilled workers because there are not enough to satisfy their needs, in-state.

The Colorado Paradox is the primary case for state investment in education. We have jobs waiting for every single student who graduates college. In fact we need to increase our number of college graduates by 2% per year to keep up with demand.

However, if you accept that we want to graduate more students; the question turns to “How?”

Reasons against Full-Time Kindergarten?

Opponents might say that we already take our educational responsibility to the point of burden; we should not spend taxpayer money to help immigrants and socioeconomically disadvantaged children. These free supports can encourage more immigration, creating an untenable long-term burden to our state.

One of Doug Friednash’s readers responded to his article with the following:

Laying aside the incendiary tone, this commenter voices beliefs that lead to concern about the plan::

  1. Full-time Kindergarten would cost much more than $227 million
  2. Kindergarten is more like daycare than school and does not lead to better educational outcomes
  3. Colorado cannot afford this educational policy over the long-term

The commenter’s first point, that the budget would require more money than $227 million, has validity. Friednash did not include $25 million in implementation costs, which brings the total to $252 million at the very least. Additionally, the budget presumes that Kindergarten teachers would be paid the same hourly wage next year as this year. But it is difficult to hold onto good teachers at the current rate. It is entirely possible that schools would need to raise teachers’ hourly rate, which would increase the financial requirements even more.

The commenter also believes that Kindergarten is like daycare: expanding daycare will not lead to better educational outcomes. This point is highly contested. There is strong evidence suggesting that early interventions work extremely well, returning $6.30 for every $1 spent. Especially in terms of basic English and reading skills, it is easy to see how more time spent with educators would help disadvantaged kids catch up.

The third point, that Colorado cannot afford this budget in the long run, is difficult to gauge. Friednash points out that $227 million is only a 3% increase in the total education budget. However, the total cost will be more. The increase would also mean that other programs like transportation might be required to decrease funding in future years to balance the budget.

Is full-time kindergarten worth $252 million? Would it be worth $300 million? How much is too much?

What We Believe

We have done our best to provide the arguments for and against full-time kindergarten objectively. We believe very strongly in education, but every policy should be scrutinized and assessed on what value it provides to the relevant stakeholders, and what tradeoffs those stakeholders are willing to make.

Are you for or against full-time kindergarten for Colorado? We’d like to hear from you either way. Send us an email below.