Colorado releases early plans for universal preschool — but it’s complicated and raises some questions

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Saralyn Voltz bleaches toys in her preschool classroom at Carson Elementary, March 13, 2020.

Colorado released a new draft plan Tuesday for how the state will roll out preschool for the state’s 4-year-olds starting in the fall of 2023.

The draft plan calls for a network of local authorities across the state to execute a plan to provide at least 10 hours of voluntary, high-quality preschool for children in the year before they go to kindergarten.

However, if the child care provisions in the Build Back Better Act pass through Congress, advocates say nine in 10 children under 5 in the state could eventually benefit.

Why is Colorado launching universal preschool?

In 2020, voters approved universal preschool for Colorado’s 4-year-olds in what’s called a “mixed delivery” system. That means children may receive child care through a school district-based program, a local Head Start program, a program in a family’s home or a child care center, for example. Any additional dollars would go to extra hours for children experiencing poverty or other risk factors like homelessness or children needing special education services.

Why is there such a big push for preschool?

Ninety percent of brain development occurs from birth to age 5. Advocates say the quality of the preschool program has major impacts on the course of a child’s life. Research shows that children who attend high-quality preschool are, on average, eight months ahead in academic learning and about five months ahead in executive function skills, such as listening, planning and self-control, compared to those who do not. Children who attend high-quality preschool are more likely to graduate college, less likely to become a teenage parent, enter the criminal justice system or experience poverty later in life.

Who goes to public preschool right now?

Colorado’s preschool program now is open to low-income children and those with other risk factors. Statewide, only a third of 3- and 4-year-olds in Colorado have access to publicly funded preschool. It’s unknown how many 4-year-olds will participate in the new universal preschool program, but some estimate it could be as high as 75 percent. For families who can’t access a publicly funded program, they must pay at least $8,600 per year for child care, making it unaffordable for many families.

What’s in Colorado’s new plan?

The draft plan lays out a vision for the experience every child should have before entering kindergarten. However, what universal preschool will ultimately look like in Colorado will most likely adapt and change over the next few years.

Architects of the draft plan call for a system of “local leads” to act as “captain and coordinator.”  Local leads could be a county, school district, early childhood council, special taxing district or other authority depending on the region. They'd make sure every child is offered a preschool spot, making the application process easy and distributing funding to early childhood providers.

“The user experience has to be very important in this design … collect only as much information from families as necessary,” said Susan Steele, co-chair of the Colorado Early Childhood Leadership Commission.

What will the state’s new department of early childhood do?

It will select and oversee the local leads. The state is also charged with developing a single, unified application process, defining what “quality” preschool means, what skills the new workforce needs, and setting a base rate for 10 hours of universal preschool. Right now, different types of child care have different standards for things like staff ratios per child and how much education an educator has.

How will this work if each child is only guaranteed 10 hours a week?

Those kinds of details are unclear, for example, whether it would be spread out over a week. A lot depends on whether the Build Back Better Act, which has passed the U.S. House of Representatives, passes the full Congress.

What will it mean for Colorado’s plans if the child care provisions in the Build Back Better Act pass the Senate?

There are two categories of funding for early education. One builds on state existing programs for free pre-kindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds. It is estimated that Build Back Better would expand access to free, full-time, high-quality preschool for more than 86,000 additional 3 and 4-year-olds per year in Colorado. In the first two years starting in fiscal 2022, there would be no state match. Starting in fiscal 2025, states would provide a 10 percent match. That increases over three years to a 40 percent match by fiscal 2027.

What about Colorado children who are younger than 3?

 The second category of funding directly subsidizes child care for children under 6.  It’s estimated that Colorado could provide access to child care to about 330,000 young children, ages 0-5 in families earning 2.5 times the state median income (a family of four making $251,900 or less).

 “For example, two parents with one toddler earning $100,000 a year, the framework produces about $5,000 in child care savings per year,” said U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, who is campaigning in favor of the measure. “The vast majority of working families will pay no more than 7 percent of their income on child care for children under 6.”

Families earning below 75 percent of the state’s median income would pay nothing for child care.

How difficult will it be to implement universal preschool in Colorado?

It will require unprecedented collaboration between state agencies, child care providers and local communities. There is already an acute shortage in the child care workforce right now, and there currently aren’t enough child care slots for families who want them. There is also a complex patchwork of different funding sources that local entities will have to figure out how to “blend and braid.” Different communities in Colorado are at different degrees of readiness for universal preschool.

Will there be enough early child care educators to handle the demand?

From 2020 to 2021 alone, the state lost nearly 7 percent of child care professionals and 70 percent of early childhood education providers reported difficulties finding qualified staff. There was a 28 percent turnover rate in 2019. Severely low wages and lack of support like paid planning time on the job are major drivers of turnover.

Diana Schaack with the University of Colorado Denver said Colorado’s approach to workforce development has been somewhat reactionary.

“Hiring teachers with minimum qualifications and asking them to take lots of coursework or extensive professional development in a new, often stressful low wage job,” she said. “This is a recipe for burning people out.”

She’d like to see multiple ways to enter the field and build the skills of current educators. The state is already focused on developing affordable ways to get new and current educators trained as well as recruiting and incentivizing groups to become educators such as high school students, teachers from other countries and parents. It may consider a model that decreases the time it takes to get a teacher in classrooms. The draft plan also recognizes that early educators need a livable wage.

What’s next?

Public feedback on the universal preschool plan is open through an online feedback form through Dec. 15. The plan will be presented to the Colorado legislature and Gov. Jared Polis.

“This is a huge deal for the state of Colorado,” said Michelle Barnes, executive director of the Department of Human Services, one of the many entities that worked on the draft plan. “Universal Pre-K is a game-changer for a lot of our young ones and their families.”