DENVER – Free, full-day kindergarten will be available to all Colorado kids this fall, thanks to the final passage late Tuesday of House Bill 1262, which sets aside $175 million for the program.
The bill now heads to Gov. Jared Polis’ desk, a fulfillment of one of the new governor’s signature campaign promises. It is also a major victory for Southwest Colorado school districts, which collectively spend more than $2 million paying for full-day kindergarten out of their general fund money. Now, Durango 9-R, Montezuma-Cortez, Bayfield and Mancos school districts will be able to use the extra revenue to increase teacher salaries.
Bill sponsor Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida, has fought for years to get funding for a full-day kindergarten program, which statute requires the state to fund but has been neglected since the 2008 recession. When the bill cleared its first hurdle, the House Education Committee in early April, Wilson compared the success to the monumental 19th-century completion of the transcontinental railroad.
“Our kindergarten work will never be done, but little do you realize what you have done,” he said. “Let’s get this kindergarten train rolling.”
Polis initially requested $227 million to fund full-day kindergarten, but the number was cut down to $185 million and then $175 million.
The bill was also sponsored by Durango’s Democratic Rep. Barbara McLachlan, a former teacher who chairs the House Education Committee. It had broad bipartisan support and passed unanimously through the Senate, although on Tuesday 11 lawmakers voted against it in the House.
Colorado currently funds half-day kindergarten, and around 50,000 kindergartners – nearly 80 percent – attend full-day programs, which are funded by tuition charges or money from school budgets. About 14,000 students attend half-day programs. While attending kindergarten will remain voluntary, Polis and lawmakers hope the state-funded full-day program will encourage more families to put their kids in full-day kindergarten.
Attending kindergarten will remain optional and districts will not be required to offer full-day programs, although HB 1262 does prohibit them from charging tuition for kindergarten.