An early promise

Gubernatorial candidate Jared Polis wants to make preschool and full-day kindergarten free. That could prove tough.

Congressman Jared Polis meets with teachers, parents and students at the Academy of Urban Learning in Denver after announcing his gubernatorial campaign. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Polis of Boulder, the latest Democrat to enter the 2018 governor’s race, faces an uphill battle in fulfilling one of his first campaign promises: providing free preschool and full-day kindergarten to all Colorado kids.

After a visit Monday to a charter school he helped start, Polis told Chalkbeat he would create a bipartisan group to craft ballot language asking voters to increase taxes to cover the hundreds of millions of dollars required.

“We’re going to build a winning coalition,” he said. “We’re going to have Republicans and Democrats. We’re going to have the business community. We’re going to have educators. And we’re going to speak right to families about how important full-day kindergarten and preschool is and what a positive difference it can make in their lives.”

However, Colorado voters historically have rejected statewide tax increases for education, and state lawmakers have little appetite to spend existing money on early childhood education.

Backers say preschool and full-day kindergarten can help students, especially low-income students, develop early reading and math skills — along with social and emotional skills that help kids keep emotions in check, solve conflicts and build healthy relationships.

It’s unclear how much it would cost to pay for universal preschool access. The state spent $86 million in 2015 to send more than 21,000 at-risk 3- and 4-year-olds to preschool through the Colorado Preschool Project.

To pay for full-day kindergarten for all Colorado students, the state would need to spend about an additional $250 million, according to a 2016 legislative analysis.

Colorado school districts receive a little more than half the average per pupil amount for kindergarten students compared to students in higher grades. School districts must make up the difference if they offer full-day kindergarten. Some districts have asked voters to pay for the program, while others charge tuition.

State Rep. Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican, has attempted to send more money to the state’s kindergarten classrooms for the last three years. He said he welcomed Polis’s commitment, but was skeptical.

“There’s a whole lot of difference between an election and reality,” he said. “I don’t see the governor’s office, no matter who is in there, sending a budget with $250 million for full-day kindergarten.”

Some of the state’s most conservative lawmakers oppose expanding funding for early childhood education because they believe parents — not the state — should be responsible for early learning.

Polis said it would not be mandatory for families to enroll their children in preschool.

“What we’re talking about is making preschool available to families,” he said.

Polis has a lengthy resume on education issues. He’s helped launch charter schools, is the former chairman of the State Board of Education and most recently became the highest ranking Democrat on the U.S. House’s Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education Subcommittee.

Other Democratic candidates who have announced for the 2018 race include U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, former state Sen. Michael Johnston, former state treasurer Cary Kennedy and businessman Noel Ginsberg.

Current Republican candidates include George Brauchler, the 18th Judicial District attorney; Victor Mitchell, a former state lawmaker; and Doug Robinson, a businessman and nephew of former presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Chalkbeat Community Editor Ann Schimke contributed.

leading the state

Three things we heard at a gubernatorial candidates forum on early childhood

PHOTO: Ann Schimke | Chalkbeat
Jared Polis, the Democratic candidate for Colorado governor, and Lang Sias, the Republican lieutenant governor candidate, spoke at forum on early childhood issues.

Stark differences in how Colorado’s two would-be governors plan to tackle early childhood issues were clear at a candidate forum Monday evening.

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, the Democratic nominee, envisions free full-day preschool and kindergarten for all Colorado children — a sweeping and pricey expansion of what’s currently available.

Republican lieutenant governor candidate Lang Sias, who stood in for gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton, said Republicans would focus public funds on narrower programs that benefit the poorest children.

Currently, Colorado funds early childhood programs for some of its young children. The state provides half-day preschool to 4-year-olds with certain risk factors, but the program covers only some of those who qualify. In addition, the state reimburses districts for just over half the cost of full-day kindergarten, leaving districts to pay for the rest or pass on the cost to families through tuition. Last spring, lawmakers expanded the state income tax credit for child care costs, but most families still need to come up with hundreds or even thousands of dollars a month.

Monday’s event at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science represented a rare opportunity to hear candidates address early childhood issues, which are often overshadowed on the campaign trail by topics such as housing, roads and health care. While the forum highlighted some of the big early childhood ideas championed by each campaign, it also left plenty of unanswered questions.

Stapleton, Colorado’s state treasurer, was originally slated to speak at the forum, but backed out citing family obligations. Sias, a state representative from Arvada and a member of the House Education Committee, spoke in his place.

Polis and Sias didn’t debate each other at Monday’s forum, or otherwise interact. Polis went first, giving a short statement about his early childhood platform then answering several questions posed by moderator Bill Jaeger, vice president for early childhood and policy initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign. Sias followed suit.

The event was sponsored by Constellation Philanthropy, a group of funders focused on early childhood issues. (Constellation is a Chalkbeat funder.)

Here are three things we learned from the forum:

The candidates have different ideas about which young children need help and how to provide it

In discussing his plans to create universal full-day preschool and kindergarten, Polis talked about using a public-private financing mechanism that’s sometimes called “social impact bonds.”

In this kind of financing — also called “pay for success” — private investors or philanthropists pay up front for social programs and get repaid with interest if those programs save public money by reducing the need for costly services such as special education or reading remediation. If a project doesn’t yield the hoped-for savings, the investors lose some or all of their money.

Polis said if he wins in November, he’ll immediately “work out how to partner with philanthropy to create more early childhood education for all income levels.”

Currently a version of social impact bonds is being used to pay for full-day preschool for some students in the Westminster school district north of Denver, a fact Polis mentioned Monday. Still, the financing mechanism is relatively untested in Colorado’s education sphere and it’s unclear how it might be scaled to pay for something as ambitious as statewide full-day preschool and kindergarten.

When talking about the Republican ticket’s early-education priorities, Sias described early childhood education as “incredibly important” but “very inequitably distributed.”

“We want to focus our public spending on those who are least able to afford it on their own,” he said.

He cited a proposal for education savings accounts that allow families to set aside money tax-free for educational expenses, including early childhood education.

“We realize that is more focused on middle-class and above families,” he said, “but by targeting that money using that program, we feel we will have more available to target the folks at the bottom of the spectrum who really cannot avail themselves of that opportunity.”

Education savings accounts don’t typically work for low-income parents because they have no extra money to set aside for future expenses.

The candidates would take different approaches to strengthening the early childhood workforce

In a field marked by low pay and tough working conditions, recruiting and retaining qualified teachers is a chronic problem. The candidates had ideas about how to bulk up the workforce.

Sias advocated for a residency program to help turn out new early childhood teachers, similar to what he’s previously proposed to help address the K-12 teacher shortage. He said such programs are data-driven, helping retain teachers for longer periods and improving student results.

He also floated the idea of recruiting midlife career-changers to early childhood work — “folks north of 50” — and hinted that they would work in the low-paid field.

“Is that an opportunity to tap into … folks who would like to fill those spots who maybe don’t have the same set of issues that millennials do in terms of how long they want to stay and how long they need to be committed, and frankly how much they need to be paid?”

While some middle-aged people do enter the field, mediocre pay, a maze of state regulations, and the growing push to boost providers’ education levels could make it a tough sell.

Polis talked about creating partnerships with colleges to beef up the credentials of people who currently work in the early childhood field.

He said it’s important to “bridge the skills gap” for those whose hearts are already in the work. He didn’t address how he could dramatically expand preschool and kindergarten simply by focusing on the existing workforce, where turnover can be as high as 40 percent annually.

Neither candidate talked about how he would boost compensation for early childhood workers, whose median pay in Colorado is $12.32 an hour, Jaeger said.

Both candidates agree that Colorado can do much better by its youngest residents

When asked how Colorado is doing overall in supporting young children and their families, both candidates agreed that the state has a long way to go.

Sias emphasized that low-income children continue to be left out. Polis talked about the lack of uniform access to full-day kindergarten.

Both candidates expressed interest in working with bipartisan coalitions on solutions.

“There’s so many people in our state who want to do right by their kids,” said Polis. “It’s really going to take folks from across the spectrum coming together.”

Sias, who argued for a combination of business-minded acumen and public money for early childhood, asked the audience to partner with lawmakers in finding what programs work.

He said he and Stapleton are “more than willing to work across the aisle with folks that we like and respect, and have knowledge in this area.”

meet the candidates

These candidates are running for Detroit school board. Watch them introduce themselves.

Nine candidates are vying for two seats on Detroit's school board in November. Seven submitted photos.

One candidate tells of a childhood in a house without heat.

Another describes the two-hour commute he made to high school every day to build a future that would one day enable him to give back to Detroit.

A third says her work as a student activist inspired her to run for school board as a recent high school grad.

These candidates are among nine people vying for two seats up for grabs on Detroit’s seven-member school board on Nov. 6. That includes one incumbent and many graduates of the district.

Chalkbeat is partnering with Citizen Detroit to present a school board candidate forum Thursday, Sept. 20 from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., at IBEW Local 58, 1358 Abbott St., Detroit.

Participants will have the opportunity to meet each candidate and ask questions in a speed-dating format.

In anticipation of that event, Citizen Detroit invited each of the candidates to make a short video introducing themselves to voters. Seven candidates made videos.

Watch them here: