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Five-year-old Samatar Abhullahi works during his kindergarten class at Denver's Ashley Elementary School.

Five-year-old Samatar Abhullahi works during his kindergarten class at Denver’s Ashley Elementary School.

One kindergarten funding bill dies, sentence deferred on another

A $243 million plan for the state to pick up the tab for full-day kindergarten passed the House Education Committee Monday and was shuttled off to the Appropriations Committee, where it’s expected to die near the end of the session.

An hour later, in another Capitol hearing room, the Senate State Affairs Committee finally voted to kill a different kindergarten funding plan.

The state pays for kindergarten students at only 58 percent of the average per-student funding provided for kids in grades 1-12.

All but 10 of Colorado’s 178 districts offer full-day kindergarten, and 76 percent of the state’s 64,631 kindergarteners are enrolled in the longer programs. Districts pay for such programs from local funds and, in some communities, from parent fees.

Advocates of a greater state role believe providing less per-pupil funding for kindergarteners is fundamentally unfair, argue that districts could use local funds for other needs if the state picks up the tab and worry that some low-income families can’t afford fees.

“The people in the state are coming to expect full-day kindergarten. We don’t fund it, so districts have to,” Republican Rep. Jim Wilson, a retired superintendent from Salida, told his House Education Committee colleagues. “Our obligation is to fully fund kindergarten.”

This isn’t the first session Wilson has pushed the issue, and he’s repeatedly acknowledged the debate is more symbolic than real given the revenue and budget restrictions facing the legislature.

His House Bill 16-1022 would phase in full funding over five years and also provide money to some districts for kindergarten classrooms.

House Education passed it 7-3, with Republican Reps. Justin Everett of Jefferson County, Paul Lundeen of Monument and JoAnn Windholz of Adams County voting no. The bill’s next stop is appropriations. Bills typically stack up in that committee until March or April, when lawmakers learn how much – or how little – money is available for new programs in the coming budget. Then most bills are killed.

Senate bill took a different tack

The Senate State Affairs Committee, known as a “kill committee” for the fate suffered bills sent there, has been dancing around Senate Bill 16-023 since last Monday.

The measure by Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, was more complicated than Wilson’s bill. Kerr proposed a mechanism that have would have required voters to allow the state to keep revenues that otherwise would be earmarked for tax refunds under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Right. Those revenues would first have been devoted to increasing kindergarten support over five years, with any excess cash earmarked for reducing the negative factor, the state’s overall school funding shortfall.

After hearing two hours of testimony Feb. 1, the committee was about to take the fatal vote when Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, said he couldn’t support kindergarten funding until the state reduces the negative factor.

Democrats called Hill’s bluff, and Kerr said he’d propose an amendment making the negative factor the focus of the bill, not full-day kindergarten. The committee didn’t act on that idea then or at a second meeting later in the week.

On Monday, Kerr finally got to propose his amendment, which was passed. Then the bill was killed on a 3-2 party-line vote, with Republicans in the majority.

The debate in Senate had less to do with kindergarten and more about Republican and Democratic differences over tax refunds. Saying cuts could be made elsewhere in the budget, Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, said, “We could do things and make education a priority without thumbing our nose at TABOR. That’s what this bill does.”