More Colorado children may be heading to school this fall after a bill to fund free full-day kindergarten cleared the Colorado General Assembly on Tuesday. The legislation now heads to the desk of Gov. Jared Polis, who campaigned on the issue and made it the top priority of his first legislative session.

Colorado currently finances a little over a half-day of kindergarten instruction for students. For the 80 percent of kindergarteners now enrolled in full-day programs, districts may fund the difference through their own budgets, use local tax dollars, or charge parents up to $500 in monthly tuition, Polis stated in his 2019 budget proposal.

The State Funding for Full-Day Kindergarten bill authorizes about $175 million to fund full-day kindergarten for the 2019–20 school year—less than the $227 million Polis requested, but enough to cover projected enrollment for the upcoming school year. “What really surprises people is when I say kindergarten can be free this August,” Polis said in a sit-down interview with 5280. “That just shows that when we want it to, government can move fast and make things happen.”

Polis—who founded and served as a superintendent of charter schools and won a seat on the Colorado State Board of Education early in his career—has aggressively advocated for full-day kindergarten since day one of his new administration. In his State of the State address in January, Polis described his plans to offer full-day kindergarten and expand preschool to 8,000 additional children as “the single biggest expansion of early childhood education in Colorado history.” He has also testified before the legislature’s Joint Education Committee, hosted stakeholder meetings in the governor’s office, and visited kindergarten classrooms across the state.

But the bill’s relatively smooth sailing in an often-contentious legislative session ultimately reflects its unique bipartisan nature. Polis’ momentum builds on years of work by another former school superintendent, Republican Rep. Jim Wilson of Salida, who has sponsored a full-day kindergarten bill for six of his seven years in office (including the current legislation).

During his tenure as head of the Salida School District, Wilson says he saw the need for full-day kindergarten firsthand. “If you can’t read, you can’t succeed, and you have to be on the same page when you start that race,” he says. “Some of the kids that are starting behind are never going to catch up.”

Wilson is quick to rattle off statistics that illustrate the lifelong impact of early education. According to Colorado Measures of Academic Success (CMAS) tests, about three in five third-graders are not proficient in reading. As those children get older, the education gap takes a stronger toll, Wilson says: Third-graders who can’t read are four times more likely to drop out of high school (the rate doubles for black and Hispanic students); half the heads of household for families on welfare are high school dropouts; and seven in 10 prison inmates cannot read above the fourth-grade level.

“As you look at the impact of getting started earlier with kindergarten programs, you’re not only talking about academic success, you’re also talking about economic success, you’re talking about addressing the welfare system, and you’re talking about keeping people out of prison,” he says.

When Wilson first took office in 2013, he made a key discovery: Colorado already has an obligation in an existing statute to fund full-day kindergarten, which has been neglected since the economic recession. “I really got fired up,” he says. “You shouldn’t ignore an obligation.”

Over the years, Wilson sponsored different versions of a full-day kindergarten bill, ranging from an incremental spending bump to full funding, but was unsuccessful until this year. In a bipartisan tag team effort between the Salida Republican and the Boulder Democrat, Wilson credits Polis for finally getting the bill over the finish line. “The big key was that Gov. Polis was willing to go on record for finding the money,” he says. “Suddenly people started falling into line.”

For his part, Polis says connecting with Wilson was an early priority after winning the governorship in 2018 and promoting a “Colorado for All” theme throughout the state. “He was one of my first calls after I got elected,” Polis says. “It’s an exciting show of bipartisanship that one of our top priorities has a lead Republican sponsor in the House.”

The full-day kindergarten legislation also has strong support in the Senate, where it passed the chamber with an unanimous vote on Friday. The bill is especially important in rural areas, where many parents drive their children long distances to school, said Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg (R- Sterling), in a speech on the Senate floor. When children’s families lack the resources to pick them up from school midday, “they don’t get to go to any kindergarten,” he said.

Democratic Senators agreed on the importance of the legislation to families. “Full-day kindergarten programs better accommodate both students and working families,” said Sen. Rhonda Fields (D-Aurora). “It’s time we invest in every child to ensure they have a strong head start.”

Although there is no mandate for school districts or parents to participate in full-day kindergarten, the new bill enables districts and parents already paying for such programs to budget those funds for other priorities. The legislation also creates equal opportunities for districts to offer programs to the state’s 13,000 children without access to full-day kindergarten and frees up funds for over 5,000 preschool slots in the state-funded Colorado Preschool Program, which are currently being used to pay for kindergarten, Polis says. “It’s a great investment in our future,” he adds.

While the bill will help parents save money, its primary goal is to set up learning success, says Polis. Today’s kindergarten curriculum reflects what first grade students learned in school 10 years ago, he says.  “One of the most uninformed critiques is from people who think this is daycare” he says. “They clearly haven’t been in a kindergarten classroom in the last couple decades.”

Last week, Polis additionally announced a separate proposal with Rep. Yadira Caraveo (D-Thornton) to place a tax on cigarette, tobacco, and nicotine products on the 2019 statewide ballot. The tax could double Colorado’s preschool spending for low-income families to help fill the remaining 3,000 preschool slots targeted in Polis’ State of the State address.

Although some legislators expressed concern over making a longterm funding commitment to full-day kindergarten in the face of a projected economic slowdown, Polis maintains that early education will continue to be a top spending priority. “Funding for K-12 would be one of the last places that I would seek to make cuts,” he says. “It’s really about an investment in our future, in good times and bad.”