Proposed State Agency Would Be Dedicated To Solving Early Childhood Issues

Children on the playground at Oak Street Child Development Center in Arvada, December 8, 2020.

Colorado could one day have a new state agency devoted to early childhood education, just as it does for other sectors like health, corrections, labor, K-12 education and higher education. That’s if lawmakers take up a unanimous recommendation approved Tuesday by the state’s Early Childhood Leadership Commission.

Members of the formal advisory board celebrated the video call vote, calling it a “monumental” day for early childhood education.

“This is a historic vote… that I hope is going to lead to historic changes in this state,” said Allegra “Happy” Haynes, a member of the commission.

It's hoped the recommendation can go before lawmakers this legislative session.

A new cabinet-level state agency for early childhood would consolidate various programs and funding streams that are spread across multiple agencies. Those initiatives would fall under a single department that serves all children and their families from birth to age five.

“Elevating early childhood to a cabinet-level state agency recognizes the importance of quality early care and education in the growth and development of young children and in building healthy communities and a robust economy,” said Pamela Harris, co-chair of the commission and president and CEO of Mile High Early Learning.

Bill Jaeger of the Colorado Children’s Campaign said advocates have been calling for increased investment and a more coordinated approach for the past three decades. He said progress has been made. Despite overwhelming brain science research showing that the first few years of life are the most critical in a child’s development, families of young children receive the least support during this time period.

“It's the age at which children are most likely to live in poverty, least likely to have access to enriching learning experiences like school, and when families are earning the least amount of money…. and so, to recognize that we have to elevate this time period in children's lives on par with K-12 education and higher education is a historic. It’s a tremendous potential step forward for the state.”

The birth through age 5 system is complex. Right now, thousands of Colorado families experience a fragmented system that is administered by multiple state agencies, with funding and application and eligibility requirements from five different funding streams each with different standards.

“It's really hard still for families to navigate across those different silos,” Jaeger said. It’s hoped a single agency will align and streamline the programs that serve young children. An analysis of a new governance model acknowledges that it will take “financial, logistical and political resources to create a new agency,” starting with legislative approval.

Advocates say the passage of Proposition EE, which will fund at least 10 hours of preschool for 4-year-olds, catalyzed the issue. That component of Proposition EE goes into effect in the fall of 2023.

Six states have early childhood agencies, including Alabama and New Mexico.