What would funding full-day kindergarten mean for Colorado?

Written by: Bill Jaeger
Date Posted: December 7, 2018

There was a great deal of discussion during the election cycle, and a growing amount in the lead-up to the 2019 legislative session, about the potential to increase support for full-day kindergarten and preschool in Colorado. In a future KidsFlash, we will look at the substantial unmet need and potential return on investment of preschool, but focus our attention on funding full-day kindergarten (and how doing so frees up additional resources to eliminate the wait list for Colorado’s highly successful state PreK program (CPP)) in this week’s edition.

How’d we get here?

An abundance of research demonstrates that access to a full day of kindergarten is an effective approach to supporting the school readiness of young children. Parents and school districts also recognize this: despite the fact that the state only funds a little more than half a day of kindergarten for all kids, nearly all Colorado children attend kindergarten and 78 percent of all enrolled kindergarteners are in a full-day program this year. This is up from just 14 percent in 2001 and just 40 percent in 2007.  Currently, 140 of Colorado’s 178 school districts have all kindergarteners enrolled in a full-day program. All but 30 school districts have 95 percent or more of their kindergarteners in a full-day kindergarten program. All but five school districts offer a full-day program. In short, demand has increased dramatically for full-day kindergarten during the past 17 years and continues to increase, but without adequate funding support from the General Assembly.

How are so many kids in full-day kindergarten without state funding?

Despite the growth in demand, there are nearly 14,000 kindergarteners not enrolled in a full-day program. Another significant portion of full-day kindergarteners who only have access because their parents can afford the tuition, because their local communities can afford a mill levy to cover the costs, or because the district is cutting funds from somewhere else to offer access. This means full-day kindergarten often comes at the sacrifice of other opportunities for children.

How does our current system affect educational equity?

Schools and districts are working hard to respond to increased parent demand and recognize that a full-day experience helps lay the foundation for years to come. The shortfall in state support for a full day of kindergarten means, however, districts must cut resources from general operating revenue and/or charge parents tuition to respond to this demand.

Given that school districts do not commonly charge tuition to children eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, this has meant that districts with large concentrations of low-income children bear a disproportionate share of cuts from other priorities to offer full-day kindergarten (rather than relying on parent fees). By implementing full funding based on a child’s actual enrollment, those districts that have had to cut back on teacher salaries, raise classroom sizes, reduce counseling and eliminate other support services to offer full-day kindergarten will be able to invest in significant unmet need in these and other areas.

Why do we need to offer full-day kindergarten?

The failure of the state to invest in early education is puzzling given the strong and growing evidence base for how valuable a full-day kindergarten experience is for children. For example, recent evidence from random assignment to full- versus half-day kindergarten shows strong results in terms of early literacy. All students benefit from these early experiences, but Hispanic students, in particular, benefit in some of the strongest ways. This is also true of students who enter kindergarten with low literacy skills: they experience particularly large gains. As a result, there is a substantial return on this investment.

There is consistent evidence that achievement gaps by race and socio-economic status are already sizable at the end of the kindergarten year. In addition, these gaps persist and grow throughout the primary grades. Investing in prevention, rather than remediation, is one of the most cost-effective approaches to addressing our K-12 education challenges.

Can full funding kindergarten support preschool?

An added benefit of fully funding full-day kindergarten is the complementary freeing up of resources to invest in the Colorado Preschool Program. The General Assembly, beginning in 2013, approved additional early childhood education slots via the ECARE (Early Childhood At-Risk Enhancement) program. These slots are allocated to districts and can be used flexibly for a half-day of preschool, two slots for a full-day of preschool, or to fill out the latter half of a full-day kindergarten program.

Each ECARE slot is the equivalent of half of per pupil funding for school districts ($4,068 in 2018-19).

For the 2018-19 school year, ECARE slots were distributed as follows:

Type of Program Total Slots Total dollar equivalent
Colorado Preschool Program 20,160 slots (10,080 FTE) $82,020,960
ECARE Total 9,200 (4,600 FTE) $37,430,200
ECARE Half-day Preschool 2,853 (1,426.5 FTE) $11,607,431
ECARE Full-day Preschool 967 slots (483.5 FTE) $3,934,240
ECARE Full-day Kindergarten 5,380 slots (2,690 FTE) $21,888,530
Total slots CPP: 20,160; ECARE: 9,200 = 29,360 $119,451,160

It is worth noting (see the above row for “ECARE Full-day kindergarten”) that if we are to expand full funding for full-day kindergarten, then the use of the 5,380 slots (and associated $22 million expenditure) can be effectively redirected to support preschool access. Given that only 24 percent of 4-year-olds in Colorado access our state-funded pre-K program and that there are several thousand children on our state pre-K wait list, ensuring these slots remain available to preschool is an important added benefit of kindergarten expansion.

What’s next for ideas to fund full-day kindergarten and preschool?

Our next governor, Jared Polis, campaigned on providing full-day preschool and kindergarten state-wide. Polis is currently hiring his cabinet members and policy staff. We’ll have a better idea of how the governor-elect plans to achieve his goals in the coming months. We’ll be closely following all proposals to ensure children with the most barriers to education are a top priority in any solution. Stay tuned to KidsFlash!

Bill Jaeger

About Bill Jaeger

Bill Jaeger, Vice President of Early Childhood Initiatives at the Children's Campaign, has spent the past decade teaching, studying, and working on issues in public education and public policy. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth College and a master’s in education from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education before working as a public school teacher and administrator in the greater Hartford, Connecticut area for several years. Bill also holds master’s degrees in public policy and political science and worked in several positions in the non-profit sector prior to joining the Colorado Children’s Campaign as Vice President of Early Childhood Initiatives. Bill is a graduate of Cheyenne Mountain High School in Colorado Springs and enjoys spending time in the mountains with his wife, son, daughter, and golden retriever.