As is the case every year on the Western Slope, summer has come to an end much too soon. While a return to school this week may be routine for kids and parents, many families in Mesa County and thousands more across Colorado have a new cause for celebration this month: full-day kindergarten at no cost to parents.
While many communities in Colorado have increased access to full-day kindergarten in recent years, according to a survey from the state Department of Education, 14,000 children in approximately 20% of Colorado's 178 school districts were without access to this important educational resource at the end of 2018. The primary reason for this was inadequate state funding that left a veritable checkerboard of inequality across Colorado. While some districts offered free full-day kindergarten, dozens more either charged families as much as $500 per month in tuition or they merely declined to offer the service.
The problem was particularly acute here in Mesa County. About half of District 51's 25 elementary schools offered full-day kindergarten using federal funds last year, while the other half offered a combination of full- and half-day programs. About 900 students, or two-thirds of Mesa County kindergartners, attended half-day programs. This fall, however, these circumstances will be different.
Thanks to the bold leadership of Gov. Jared Polis and a bipartisan coalition of legislators in the state Legislature, kids in Mesa County and their peers across the state now have guaranteed access to free full-day kindergarten. To put this point more succinctly, a child's financial or geographical circumstances will no longer limit their access to full-day kindergarten.
Discrepancies in kindergarten funding left many students less prepared to enter first grade than their peers who attended a quality full-day kindergarten program. This is of particular concern for many low-income and minority students, as well as students with learning disabilities, who may require additional support services.
Research on the effects of full-day versus half-day kindergarten from the Review on Education Research have also shown that children who attend full-day kindergarten make significantly stronger academic gains in reading and math over the course of the academic year than their peers in half-day kindergarten.
This is also a boon for school districts. The districts that were already providing full-day kindergarten can now use those funds to raise teacher pay, reduce class size, offer more extracurricular activities, improve technology, or pay for other needs. Here in Mesa County, the allocation for full-day kindergarten will now free up funds for District 51 to offer 360 new preschool slots to low-income parents and provide more robust math and literacy support to struggling students through third grade.
Finally, this policy will help all Coloradans — not just parents and kids — by helping our economy continue to grow. Parents can return to the workforce sooner, and families will have more room in their budgets to put money back into our economy. And as a long-term investment, kids who attend full-day kindergarten are more likely to graduate from high school, which means greater earning potential and economic gains for our state for years to come, and less interaction with the criminal justice system and less reliance on government services.
Research from Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman shows that investments in high-quality programs can yield an annual 13% return through improved societal outcomes, such as reduced crime, higher graduation rates and improved sociability.
The fact that full-day kindergarten will benefit some of the most vulnerable kids in Colorado is why both state-based and national organizations like Save the Children Action Network fully supported its adoption.
As parents, we understand there is no better investment to be made than an investment in our children. We applaud Gov. Polis and the Colorado General Assembly for making a wise investment and setting Colorado's youngest learners on the path to lifelong success.
Lacy Hildebrand is the mother of two children, one of whom is entering kindergarten this year, a resident of Grand Junction, and a passionate grassroots activist on behalf of kids. Mark Shriver is CEO of Save the Children Action Network, which works to increase access to high-quality early childhood education in Colorado and across America.