Colorado Governor Jared Polis
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(Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily via AP)

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis reads a book to Avon Elementary School kindergarteners during his school visit Feb. 1 in Avon.

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As Colorado lawmakers begin debating Gov. Jared Polis’ revisions to the 2019-20 state budget, early childhood education leaders in Colorado Springs are keeping their fingers crossed that one addition survives.

Polis has been pushing to fulfill a campaign promise that’s become his top legislative priority: use taxpayer dollars to provide free, full-day kindergarten for all students who want it.

The plan would have an intended trickle-down effect and provide free preschool for an additional 5,000 qualifying 3, 4 and 5 year olds at risk of school failure because of poverty, homelessness, abuse, having parents who dropped out of school or other factors.

Demand for preschool for underprivileged children is high, said Noreen Landis-Tyson, president and CEO of Community Partnership for Childhood Development, better known as CPCD.

“There’s a huge unmet need for Colorado Preschool Program slots — we have wait lists, and school districts do, too,” she said.

The Joint Budget Committee last week endorsed the proposal at a cost of $185 million, which is $42 million less than Polis’ $227 million request, plus $25 million for curriculum and supplies.

The state pays for half-day kindergarten for about 13,000 students. An additional 50,000 students statewide are enrolled in full-day kindergarten, which isn’t offered in all districts. Some districts pick up the tab for it, while other charge.

Funds for more preschool openings would come from the Colorado Preschool Program, which also pays for kindergarten slots under a 2013 provision that gives school districts spending flexibility. The additional funding for all-day kindergarten for everyone would free up more money in the preschool pot.

Polis also is seeking another 3,000 preschool seats in his budget proposal, for a total of about 8,000 new openings statewide for eligible kids.

“We are excited we might have the opportunity to make something that’s closer to universal preschool, where most kids are getting served that want to be,” said Kathy Howell, early childhood education facilitator for Colorado Springs School District 11.

During any given school year, Howell said D-11 has 300 to 400 preschoolers on a waiting list under the state’s free preschool program.

This year, there are 326 kids on the waiting list.

“It’s always been a need,” Howell said. “The earlier we’re able to help children access curriculum and instruction, the earlier we’re able to make sure they’re coming to school with the foundation to learn.”

Public school districts apply for Colorado Preschool Program slots, and districts can either contract out the classes, provide the program in-house or a combination.

“The intent is to provide children who are at-risk for school failure, living in difficult situations in their home, an opportunity for early childhood education,” Landis-Tyson said.

Her organization administers the federal Head Start program as well as the state’s preschool program in Harrison School District 2, Colorado Springs D-11, School District 49, Fountain-Fort Carson D-8, Widefield D-3 and Academy D-20.

CPCD also offers support services for clients, such as behavioral health, nutrition needs, family training sessions and activities.

Of the 1,800 children CPCD serves annually, 650 are in preschool program slots, Landis-Tyson said.

“The importance of preschool and full-day kindergarten is to make sure kids get the foundation they need to leave third grade reading at grade level,” Landis-Tyson said.

Statistics show that 44.6 percent of El Paso County third-graders read at grade level by the end of the school year.

Having difficulty reading correlates to students dropping out of school, repeating a grade, committing a crime as a juvenile and other unwanted outcomes, Landis-Tyson said.

Richard Allen, a cybersecurity and risk management consultant in Colorado Springs and education policy analyst, opposes the state funding full-day kindergarten.

“As structured now, I think it is a misuse of state resources, when other needs are considered,” he said.

In giving approval last week, Joint Budget Committee members mentioned that other sectors, such as transportation, will not receive as much of an estimated $1 billion surplus in property tax revenue if all-day kindergarten for all is approved.

Allen believes that some children, particularly boys, are not ready to read and write in kindergarten, which can lead to the deficit becoming a label and an identity.

“Repeated evaluations of Head Start have found that the early gains evaporate in succeeding grades,” he said.

Proponents, though, say the earlier learning begins, the better the chance students have to succeed in later grades and in careers.

“Learning to read starts at birth, not at preschool or kindergarten,” Landis-Tyson said. “The earlier we can intervene, the more successful we’ll be having students start kindergarten ready to learn.”

Said Howell: “It’s exciting to see the day when people are really thinking about where it begins,” Howell said.

“That would be early childhood education.”

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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