EDITORIAL: Polis’ plan for full-day kindergarten gets an ‘A minus’

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Roads or kids, Colorado?

A bevy of state lawmakers and pundits have boiled down the perennial Colorado budget conundrum to just that. Should Colorado spend any increased revenues on expanding or repairing the state’s failing road system, or should the first few extra dollars go toward one of the most poorly funded public school systems in the nation?

Gov. Jared Polis wants public schools to move to the front of the line. We agree.

Expectedly, his choice doesn’t come without controversy.

In amending outgoing Gov. John Hickenlooper’s proposed 2019-2020 state budget last week, Polis is asking state lawmakers to earmark $227 million to ensure every school in the state can offer free, full-time kindergarten. The money would come from increased state revenues, beyond what was first estimated. Polis wants to tag other state programs for small increases as well.

His logic is that few things have the ability to be a real game changer for just about every Colorado demographic as can early childhood education. In Colorado, kindergarten isn’t compulsory. While almost all school districts offer at least free half-day kindergarten, surprisingly, many larger school districts do not, including districts like Cherry Creek, JeffCo, Douglas County. There, free, full-day kindergarten is a school-by-school issue.

Some school districts offer full-day kindergarten, but at a monthly price of up to about $400 a month, according to state education officials.

Research has consistently shown that full-day kindergarten is a relatively cheap and effective way to help close the so-called achievement gap. That gap is in testing proficiency and school success between white, wealthier children and their poorer, minority counterparts.

But research has also long shown that every student, regardless of race or demographics, equally benefits from starting their school careers with a  full-day in kindergarten. The early extra effort boosts achievement and success throughout a student’s school career.

School funding in Colorado is a mind-boggling mess. Decades of conflicting laws and constitutional amendments have made the already difficult task of funding-equity a nightmare in Colorado. Fortunately, providing new kindergarten funding for a state with disparate needs won’t be overly complicated, which is a plus for Polis’ plan.

Critics of the governor’s proposal rightfully point out that the state has many needs besides education. Chief among them is the state’s increasingly inadequate transportation budget.

Polis points out that spreading this extra cash across Colorado’s plethora of demands would satisfy none of them — except the kindergarten quagmire. The governor says spending the increased money on roads would be unwise because it can’t be parlayed into more with a bond issue, because the revenue isn’t certain going forward.

That risk is the same with kindergarten funding, meaning that if state revenues slip, guaranteed kindergarten funding must come from somewhere. If lawmakers make this commitment, it’s essentially forever. Given the important of early childhood education, it’s a smart commitment to make.

If state lawmakers go along with this kindergarten-plan, however, it would make a few things critical:

• The state must overhaul its school finance formula, which is rife with equity problems.

• Related to that, lawmakers must address problems with conflicting finance issues in the Colorado Constitution cause by TABOR, the Gallagher Amendment and Amendment 23. They need to redraw these amendments and offer a fix to voters, likely this fall.

• Finally, the kindergarten plan makes sense if voters get another chance to pass a reasonable transportation plan that includes a small tax hike for badly needed expansion and repair.

Polis should lead an effort to persuade legislators to try again to ask voters to raise sales taxes to boost road construction. Common sense explains why Proposition 110 failed at the ballot last year. Competing transportation measures, a grueling, confusing ballot and a hard-to-explain project list rise to the top of that ballot question’s problems. But research and a strongly supported second chance could finally solve Colorado’s endless transportation woes. A measure like Prop 110, which asked for only a 6-cent tax hike on every $10 in purchase, is reasonable and desperately needed to help close a stunning $9 billion gap in transportation needs and funds.

By itself, a permanent full-day kindergarten commitment raises many questions. As part of a package that includes long-term transportation answers, the plan to work toward improving the lives of all Coloradans by improving public schools moves to the head of the class.