Free full-day kindergarten is coming. Here’s what Colorado parents need to know.

DENVER, CO – MARCH 9: Student Samatar Abhullahi, 5, works during his kindergarten class taught by lead teacher Jessica Langford at Ashely Elementary school in Denver, Colorado on March 9, 2015. This fall Ashley Elementary became the first DPS school to put an iPad in the hands of every one of it’s students from Kindergarten through 5th grade. Incorporating technology into day-to-day classwork is part of the plan as the school gets a fresh start as an innovation school. A $25,000 award provided the 350 iPads to the school. (Photo By Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Most Colorado parents will be able to send their children to free full-day kindergarten starting this fall.

For years, Colorado has lagged behind other states in making kindergarten accessible. Colorado currently pays districts a little more than half the standard per-pupil rate for kindergarten students. While most kindergarten students already attend full-day programs, in many districts parents pay tuition or districts pull from other needs to cover the cost. Tuition can be more than $400 a month in some districts. Roughly 13,000 students — 20%— attend half-day programs.

Legislation to make kindergarten free passed this session, thanks to a strong economy and determined lobbying from Gov. Jared Polisand education advocates. In one sense, it’s pretty simple. It’s kindergarten. For a full school day. At no cost to parents.

Nonetheless, we’ve seen a lot of questions from parents on social media and in our inboxes. Here we’ve tried to answer the most common ones.

Got a question you don’t see answered? Send us a note at co.tips@chalkbeat.org, and we’ll do our best to answer it.

Is this really happening?

YES! Legislation to fund full-day kindergarten and ban the practice of charging tuition passed both chambers of the Colorado legislature with broad bipartisan support, and the 2019-20 budget, already signed into law, includes $175 million to pay for it.

If it ends up costing more — which is possible, given that the allotment is based on not all eligible parents taking advantage of the opportunity — the legislature most likely will provide more money in a mid-year budget adjustment.

When is it happening?

Colorado will pay the full cost of kindergarten students starting next school year, fall 2019. Districts that already offer full-day kindergarten should continue to do so, and many districts with a lot of students in half-day programming are planning to switch to full-day this fall.

But will full-day kindergarten be available at my child’s school, in my district?

Probably, but it’s not guaranteed. Many districts with lots of students in half-day programming, including Cherry Creek, Boulder Valley, and District 51 in Mesa County in western Colorado, are planning to make the transition to full-day programming for this fall. However, some districts don’t have space in all of their schools. Douglas County administrators hope to be able to accommodate all students whose parents want to enroll them in full-day kindergarten, but they might not be able to attend full-day kindergarten at their nearest elementary school.

If your district currently offers half-day programming at the school you expect your child to attend, check with the school for the most accurate and up-to-date information.

I’m not sure my 5-year-old is ready for a full day of school. Do I have to send them?

No. Full-day kindergarten is not mandatory. School districts do not have to offer it, nor do parents have to enroll their children. If the schools in your area only offer full-day programming, you can choose to send them for just part of the day.

My child’s school has sent home kindergarten enrollment information that includes tuition amounts. What’s up with that?

Most schools’ enrollment periods started well before the kindergarten legislation passed. Charging tuition is now prohibited, so you won’t have to pay for full-day programming, even if you received mailers or other information from your district.

What about charter schools? Will they get the same benefits?

Charter schools that offer full-day kindergarten will get full funding for those students, just like district-run schools. Charter schools whose agreements call for half-day programming will need to renegotiate with their authorizing districts. If the two sides can’t agree, charter schools can appeal to the State Board of Education, whose members will make the final determination.

Is this guaranteed forever?

As much as anything in state law is. There’s no expiration date or conditions on the funding for full-day kindergarten. The law changes Colorado’s school finance formula so that kindergarten students get the same funding as students in grades one through 12 for the foreseeable future.

However, one provision of the law states that if Colorado ever stops funding full-day kindergarten, districts could return to charging tuition. The state constitution guarantees free public education for students aged six through 21 — but not for five-year-olds.

A strong economy and rising local property taxes helped state budget writers find the money for kindergarten this year. If we entered a deep recession or the state faced other budget troubles, lawmakers could roll back kindergarten funding, just as they could roll back other government functions.

Another option would be to keep funding for full-day kindergarten but to reduce overall schools funding, as lawmakers started to do during the Great Recession (and continue to do to this day). That would leave school districts to make other cuts without charging tuition for kindergarten.

If districts went back to half-day programming, they would lose the additional funding they get for full-day.

Do I get back the $3,000 I spent this year on my child’s kindergarten tuition?

No.

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