A proposal to introduce universal pre-K in Colorado takes its first step

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Kids line up for breakfast at Carson Elementary, March 13, 2020.

The long-awaited bill to implement a new state department of early childhood education that will launch Colorado’s universal preschool program begins its journey through the state Capitol today. All 485 pages of it.

In 2020, voters passed a nicotine tax by a two-thirds majority to give the state’s 4-year-olds access to preschool.

“It was such a great step for the kids, of course, but also for today's workforce, for single moms, for families with two parents who work,” said Gov. Jared Polis. “It saves families money. It gives kids a strong start. It addresses educational inequities before they start, it helps identify the need for special education earlier.”

Education and care for young children — newborns through 5-year-olds — has been one of Polis’ top priorities. Currently, the state-funded preschool program serves just a quarter of the state’s 4-year-olds.

The legislation would establish the new department’s scope, mission, requirements, structures and accountability. Those were defined by months of public meetings, a statewide listening tour, and input from early childhood educators, providers and families. The new agency will house and streamline a number of programs that impact young children and their families that are currently scattered over several state departments.

The new department is also charged with developing a user-friendly system for families to navigate, enroll and pay for child care and preschool programs, “to eliminate a lot of the barriers and bureaucracy that folks have to go through right now to access a lot of our early childhood programs,” said Rep. Emily Sirota, a sponsor of the legislation implementing the agency.

“We want to make it as simple as possible for parents and kids,” added Polis. “If we can streamline this, which we will through the department of early childhood, we can make sure that preschool is more equitable.”

The department’s immediate task will be to develop and roll out the voluntary preschool program starting in the fall of 2023.

Under the plan, families of 4-year-olds will receive 10 hours of childcare per week. Families will be able to sign up for care at community-based centers, a program in a family’s home, a local Head Start program or a school-based provider, for example. It’s estimated it will save families about $4,300 a year. 

“The legislation talks about 10 hours but for low income students, they’re going to get additional hours,” she said Senator Janet Buckner, one of the bill’s sponsors.

Universal preschool (UPK) will rely on a network of local authorities across the state — a county, school district or early childhood council — as the point of contact for families.

Setting base rates

Over the next year and a half, the department has a number of complex tasks: defining what “quality” preschool means, what skills the new workforce needs and setting a base rate for 10 hours of universal preschool.

Childcare providers, who operate on extremely slim profit margins, will be keeping a close eye on what those rates are. Many struggled to survive during the pandemic. They say the need to receive from the same tuition they charge private payers now in order to stay afloat.

A survey conducted by the nonprofit Early Milestones Colorado found that while two-thirds of providers stated they are likely to participate in UPK, almost one-third of center-based providers and nearly half of family childcare home providers said they are likely to not. Their reasons included worries there would be too many rules or requirements, paperwork and insufficient payment.

Some providers have complained, for example, that the reimbursement rates for parents who receive a subsidy under CCCAP, the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program, are too low.

Representative Sirota said the goal is to change that.

“Instead of the current way of doing things, which is a very rigid structure, right now we are looking at best practices in terms of how we are setting reimbursement rates to providers so that it actually reflects the cost of care.”

Wages for early childhood educators

Sirota said building the system relies on input from all involved.

“I think through the local collaboration and the work of the new department to streamline the process so that providers aren't having to work through so many differing systems and sets of rules, we will make this process easier and more attractive for them.”

Early childhood providers, who struggle to recruit and retain staff now, also worry about where they’ll be able to find enough staff to educate thousands more children. On average, most Colorado child care teachers who lead classrooms with children ages zero to 4 years old, make on average about $27,000 a year. 

Polis points to a major workforce preparation initiative working its way through the legislature that includes additional pipelines to bolster the early childhood workforce. Sirota is one sponsor of a bipartisan bill that would create an income tax credit ranging from $500 to $1,000 to help retain early childhood educators.

Senate President Sen. Steve Fenberg, who expects bipartisan support for the bill, believes part of the challenge in building a long-term workforce relates to uncertainties in the system now.

“Part of the purpose here is to actually build that stability so that the providers in the workforce can plan for the long term rather than cycle by cycle or year by year based on slots and funding availability.”

Advocates are also hopeful that the new department of early childhood and roll out of universal preschool will infuse greater investment in the sector that can support higher wages.