As universal pre-k gets ready to launch, uncertainty remains for school districts and preschool providers

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Creative Learning Preschool in west Aurora, just on the border of Denver’s Central Park neighborhood. March 22, 2022.

With the new school year just a couple of weeks away – and thousands of 4-year-olds taking part in universal preschool – there are still frayed nerves among some school districts and private child care providers.  

While thousands of families are happy to receive 15 hours a week of free education for their young child, behind the scenes a provider described it as a “debacle.”

“There's just a big hesitancy to trust right now because there's been a lot of broken pieces along the way,” said Dawn Alexander, executive director of the Early Childhood Education Association of Colorado which represents providers.

A new approach to reimbursing private providers, a year of continually shifting rules, and a lack of knowledge about who and how many children will be showing up to school districts has CASE, the Colorado Association of School Executives, a major education organization, considering legal action.

School districts want access to state’s matching system

CASE might use the courts to gain the ability to make assignments to schools. It will wait until Aug. 2 to see if the data sent by the state is adequate or whether they will continue to push for full access.

For the past 35 years, school districts have had control over how preschool works. UPK dramatically shifted that system, and it’s leaving them frustrated.

They are concerned that hundreds — or thousands — of preschoolers they’d typically expect to see enrolling aren’t doing so.

For decades, families went to their school districts to sign up for preschool. Districts walked them through the process and that was it. Now, through UPK, families sign through the state’s online platform called BridgeCare. If they’re matched to the district, families must then also enroll through the district.

School district leaders say there are families listed in BridgeCare as matched to the school district, but they’re not showing up on the school districts lists or haven’t been assigned a school. In one case, BridgeCare assigned 14 boys and 2 girls to a classroom. If school leaders had more control over matching, that wouldn’t happen, said Bret Miles, executive director of CASE.

The biggest problem is the lists arrive in bunches over time and aren’t up to date, according to school district leaders. At this week’s conference of school superintendents, a session on UPK was standing room only with plenty of frustrated school leaders.

“I've heard on several occasions this week that they think it's 50 percent (of students) of what they would expect to have coming in,” said Miles. “So, they need to be able to see in that BridgeCare system to find out where these families are that we're expecting to be here and why aren't they showing up on our list just yet?”

Denver Public Schools sent out an alert to families reminding them to complete an application before their child’s first day of school. The UPK application is online only, and some families don’t have internet. The district advised families to use a local library or a DPS community hub.

To speed things up, Colorado’s school districts want access to BridgeCare to help assign families who choose the district.

“Our schools have no way to troubleshoot and figure out kids that they were expecting, why aren't they here? And it's especially problematic with our students who have individualized education plans.”

Those are students with special needs that school districts are required to serve under federal law. Without access, districts are unable to reach out to families and guide them to the program that may best fit their child’s needs.

“Parents don't know what they don't know,” said Miles. And with school starting in a couple of weeks, under federal law, districts must maintain specific ratios of students with disabilities and those without in classrooms. They’re also worried that some students with special needs will have learning delays because of the sluggish matching system. 

CASE made a formal request to the Colorado Department of Early Childhood this week for the ability to make school assignments in BridgeCare, among other requests. Miles said school leaders and state officials made a lot of progress in recent discussions, with the state sending more detailed data reports to school districts.

The department of early childhood said special education directors were recently given access to BridgeCare to access reports to students.

“We have been in close touch with CASE throughout the week to ensure they are receiving what they need,” the department said in an email statement.  

A change in how providers will be compensated is leading to some layoffs

Some early childcare providers say the department recently changed how it will reimburse preschool providers – throwing some into financial turmoil.

A third-generation provider, Scott Bright owns six child care centers. One 12 classroom-facility is specifically tailored for 4-year-olds. It was built 12 years ago to contract with the Greeley Evans 6 school district to help provide preschool for families.

Each year, the school district paid Bright upfront in August, even if all the seats weren’t full, because children tend to enroll throughout the semester. That allowed him to train his staff, refurbish the classrooms, and resupply the curriculum to prepare for the year.

In public meetings and literature, the Department of Early Childhood decided on a similar model. It promised to pay providers based on seat capacity knowing they’d eventually fill. It’s similar to why the state pays K-12 school districts per child based on a student count in October instead of August.

Bright, who sits on an advisory committee to the Department of Early Childhood, said the department was also worried there wouldn’t be enough providers in Colorado to meet demand. So the system was set up to incentivize providers to sign up for UPK. “As such, they would be paid to start the school year off based on the number of seats that they had set aside for UPK families,” Bright said. 

But in late June, Bright learned that promise changed. The department would pay based on July enrollments rather than seats available for UPK families.  

As a result, Bright had to lay off several preschool teachers. 

“If the department was paying based on seats like they had promised back when we signed up for UPK, I would have the cash to go ahead and make payroll in August so that I could get all the staff in and get them all trained.”

He said his centers will survive. But, because of the policy shift, others won’t.

“It's discouraging to see the department make a decision that is totally out of line with the direction of the spirit of how universal preschool was developed over the last three years.”

Alexander said there is also confusion among some providers whose seats are historically full but are currently significantly under-enrolled. They’ve reported that some families said they couldn’t find their existing child care centers in the system.

“Everybody is anticipating a significant influx of kids at the end,” she said. But centers can no longer count on state funding to prepare ahead of that.

There are currently 57,808 slots in the system and 36,650 children were matched. The number of seats filled, at 63 percent, has exceeded the state’s expectations for UPK’s first year.

State officials said UPK funds actual students not seats but acknowledges that could have been communicated more clearly. It said it is proud of the “overwhelming provider support and enthusiasm” with more than 2,000 providers participating, according to an email from CDEC spokesperson Hope Shuler.

The state said it has responded to feedback from providers that they needed monthly payments, not quarterly.  

“The enrollment-based format is consistent with how providers have historically received payment in the Colorado Preschool Program, as well as a majority of tuition-based providers,” the statement read. “Tuition had always been collected from actual students, not from non-existent students.”

It said providers will receive a startup payment based on the first three rounds of matching. If a family enrolls after July 9, the provider will be back-paid the following month. If a family enrolls after the payment cutoff for that month, the provider will be back-paid the following month. 

Providers who take care of families in their homes have their own challenges

Some home-based providers saw universal preschool as a chance to expand their businesses. For the first time ever, they’d be paid at the same rate as private centers. Previously, for children who were subsidized through the Colorado Preschool Program, they received a lower rate than their counterparts. But some home providers who’ve signed up for UPK have had a rocky start.

One family home provider allocated three UPK spots to families currently enrolled in her program. But two of the families were then matched to different programs.

“It's very confusing,” said one home provider who wished to remain anonymous, fearing retribution. “And they'll say things like, ‘oh, have your lawyer look over it.’ Oh, okay, yeah, I have a lawyer! As a home provider, we don't have a lawyer on retainer. It is literally a one-man show. And so it's very scary, and everybody's scared of doing something wrong.”

Still, hopes are high for success

Many providers are sympathetic to the state officials overseeing UPK. They say they’re doing the best they can. They put the blame on lawmakers and the governor for an impossible timeline.

“Literally this is a poop show,” said one provider. “But I have high hopes for it. I have very high hopes for the program itself. It is being pushed out too fast. There's nothing CDEC can do about that. It's written into law. Their hands are tied.”

She’s hopeful many of the bumps that will arise in universal preschool’s first year can be smoothed out. The costs of child care are astronomical, more than college tuition, and families are struggling.

“We want to support our families, we want to help them out,” she said. “We want to get them this discount.”