The House Education Committee on Monday passed two bills intended to increase funding for both preschool and full-day kindergarten, but the discussion highlighted differences over which program should have the highest priority.

House Bill 15-1020, a measure that would increase state financial support of full-day kindergarten, passed 10-1, with only one Republican voting no. But House Bill 15-1024, which would provide more funding for the Colorado Preschool Program, only passed on a 6-5 party-line vote, with majority Democrats on the winning side.

The two issues consumed much of a hearing that lasted more than six hours.

The primary impact of the committee votes is to keep the ideas alive. The real decisions on the two proposals will come much later in the legislative session, when lawmakers wrestle with and finally decide the broader issue of school funding for 2015-16.

The kindergarten proposal would cost $236 million, while the preschool plan adds up to $11.3 million, according to initial estimates by legislative staff.

Republican Rep. Jim Wilson, a retired superintendent from Salida, has made a crusade of increasing kindergarten funding.

The state provides districts with .58 percent of full per-pupil funding for each kindergarten student. “As a state we claim to have a K-12 system. We do not. We have a .58 system,” Wilson told the committee.

A majority of Colorado’s 178 districts offer full-day kindergarten, but they pay for it themselves or, in some cases, charge tuition. “We have a K-12 system only because the districts are footing the bill,” Wilson said, adding that districts spend $207 million on full-day kindergarten.

If the state picked up the tab, districts could use that $207 million for other educational needs, including preschool, he argued.

Three witnesses supported the bill – two school superintendents from Wilson’s district and Bill Jaeger, lobbyist for the Colorado Children’s Campaign, which is a strong supporter of the preschool bill.

Jaeger supported the kindergarten measure but in a nuanced way. “We encourage you to think about a long-term strategy to implement the goals of Rep. Wilson’s bill.”

Rep. Justin Everett, R-Littleton, was the only no vote on the kindergarten bill.

The discussion took a different turn on HB 15-1024, whose funding would allow expansion of the Colorado Preschool Program from 28,360 students to 31,360. The program primarily serves four-year-olds who meet a specific definition of being at-risk. The program is offered both through schools and non-profit groups.

“The funding for this program has not kept pace with the need,” said prime sponsor Rep. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood.

There are a couple of fault lines on this issue, which cropped up during committee discussion.

On one side, Wilson argues that school districts should be able to choose whether to devote state early childhood money to preschool or to full-day kindergarten, depending on their individual needs. A 2014 increase in early childhood funding went into what’s called the ECARE program, which allows districts to choose how to spend the money. Some preschool advocates think too much of that money went to kindergarten.

“Why should we think we know better than the educators” in deciding how to use the money, Wilson asked.

Other Republicans are skeptical of the value of preschool and prefer that young children stay at home until kindergarten.

A parade of witnesses from advocacy groups – the Bell Policy Center, the Colorado Children’s Campaign, Together Colorado, Mile High Montessori, and others – testified for the bill, while two parents opposed it.

The committee also voted 6-5 (same partisan split) to advance House Bill 15-1001, another Pettersen-sponsored effort that would provide funding to education schools and non-profits to pay for scholarships for early childhood educators who want more training in their field.

Wilson said he’d be interested in amendments that would require scholarship recipients to both finish their degrees and work in the field for two years, and Pettersen said she’d be open to discussing those.

“We look forward to earning your votes,” she said to the committee Republicans.

Panel rejects change in school age requirements

The committee also split 6-5 on House Bill 15-1053, with Democrats voting to kill the bill. The measure would have changed the required age to enroll in school from six to seven and allowed students to leave school at 16 instead of 17.

The bill was sponsored by freshman Rep. Kim Ranson, R-Littleton, who told the committee, “This bill will allow the decision making to rest with the parents rather than the school authorities. … It simply gives parents additional time with the special cases” such as children who aren’t ready for school, illnesses, and family crises.

Ransom said the compulsory attendance ages were seven and 16 as recently as a decade ago.

Three parents testified in favor of the bill, while a representative of the Colorado Education Association opposed it.

Native American tuition bill advances

A bill that would expand resident-rate college tuition to a wider range of Native American students passed House Education on a 6-5 vote, with majority Democrats supporting and Republicans voting no.

To be eligible for the lower rate, students would have to be registered members of one of the 48 tribes with recognized “historic ties” to Colorado. One of the witnesses supporting the bill was Marshall Gover, president of the Oklahoma-based Pawnee Nation. Pawnees once lived in Colorado before white settlement. A long list of other witnesses supported the bill.

Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, sponsored a similar bill during the 2014 session. It got all the way through the House but died in the Senate Appropriations Committee late in the session, primarily because of cost issues. The potential cost of House Bill 15-1027 is tough to predict, given that it’s not known how many such students currently attend state colleges and pay out-of-state tuition, nor how many new students might be attracted. (See the best guess by legislative staff in this fiscal note.)

With Republicans now in control of the Senate, the tuition bill may not have good prospects there regardless of financial considerations.