Colorado’s long road to full-day kindergarten passed a first test Tuesday, winning House Education Committee approval.

The unanimous vote, met with cheers and applause, came after a parade of Coloradans including teachers, parents, business leaders, school administrators and school board members espoused the benefits of having children attend full-day kindergarten at no cost to families.

No one showed up to oppose House Bill 1262.

The program is expected to cost $175 million next year. That’s less than the $227 million originally requested by Democratic Gov. Jared Polis and $10 million less than the $185 million originally included in the budget by the Joint Budget Committee. House leaders said Monday that the lower cost estimate frees up $10 million for a compromise on increased transportation funding.

School districts won’t be forced to adopt a full-day program, and parents won’t be forced to enroll their children for an entire day. But districts large and small are anticipating enactment of the program and the benefits it is anticipated to bring to children.

For much of Tuesday’s committee hearing, a handful of kindergartners watched (and fidgeted a tad) from the front row.

Jamita Horton, a kindergarten teacher in southwest Denver, said she asked her students before she left them at school for the afternoon what they’d like her to tell the committee.

““One of my kiddos said, ‘If we never went to kindergarten, first grade would be so hard,‘” Horton said. Another asked, in reference to the track-and-field icon, “How would I build stamina like Wilma Rudolph?”

“They told me to tell you, ‘yes, yes, yes’ that every student should have access to full-day kindergarten,” Horton concluded.

PHOTO: Sandra Fish/For Chalkbeat
Kindergarten students listen to Colorado lawmakers debate legislation that would provide full funding for the students coming behind them.

Mike Ferrufino, president and CEO of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Colorado, said offering full-day kindergarten is especially important for students of color.

“We have the worst Hispanic achievement gap of the 10 most Hispanic states,” Ferrufino said, noting that full-day kindergarten would provide “a good start, a head start, and a launch pad for these dreams.”
Some committee members questioned the wisdom of devoting so much money to a program when a recession could decimate the state budget, and, hence, education funding.

“I don’t want to lock our future spending in based on the eighth year of economic expansion,” said state Rep. Colin Larson, a Littleton Republican.

“In terms of the education budget, it’s only 3 percent,” replied state Rep. Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican and co-sponsor of the bill. “At least the students won’t be hanging outside the door — they’ll be in the building with the rest of the students.”

State Rep. Perry Buck, a Windsor Republican, asked a couple of rural school administrators whether the money should be used to pay down the amount that Colorado lawmakers withhold from schools each year to put toward other needs. The administrators said no.

In voting yes, Larson noted the state funding would prevent districts from charging parents to cover the cost of full-day kindergarten. Tuition in many districts runs $300 to $400 a month.

“This will be a significant cost savings for the people who live in my district,” Larson said.

While full-day kindergarten is one of Polis’ top priorities as governor, it’s something Wilson has pursued throughout his seven-year legislative career. In an emotional closing speech, he likened the bill to the golden spike that completed the transcontinental railroad in 1869.

“I ask that you support this bill and complete the track. Let’s get this kindergarten train rolling.”