State lawmakers grill early childhood officials on UPK’s shaky launch

Jenny Brundin/CPR News
Teacher Amy Martinez reads a story during a preschool class Bal Swan Children’s Center in Broomfield.

Though state officials say Colorado’s universal preschool program is a success with 38,000 children enrolled, they were on the defensive Wednesday before a group of lawmakers on the Joint Budget Committee. Department officials presented an overview of the problems and challenges in implementing UPK and how they plan to fix them.

“We have had some challenges, and I can't stress enough that we have been working really hard,” said Lisa Roy, executive director of the Department of Early Childhood. “We knew implementation wasn't going to be perfectly smooth for year one, and we certainly learned a lot about how we can improve implementation.”

Officials said they’ve been working tirelessly to resolve issues behind the scenes. Those issues were raised in a lawsuit filed in August by six school districts, the organization representing school district superintendents and another representing special education directors. The state must respond to the lawsuit by Oct. 12.

 The most common concerns are about UPK’s lagging online matching system that at times provided school districts and families with incorrect information.

School districts are also concerned with reimbursement. More than 60 districts say they’ll get less money for providing universal preschool than they did under the old system. Early Childhood officials assured districts they’ll be reimbursed for the shortfall.

After the committee meeting, school districts and private providers said they’re disappointed that there was no new information or updates on the problems and questions they’ve been raising for months.

“The issues brought up today in the hearing aren’t new ones,” said Melissa Gibson,
deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “The fact that no meaningful progress has been made in addressing them is incredibly concerning.”

Districts say they need to start preparing for year two of UPK in a couple of months and still don’t have the answers from CDEC to do that.

What’s working with UPK?

Colorado is now eighth in the country in the number of 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool, up from 26th in the 2021-22 school year, according to the Department of Early Childhood. More than 38,000 students are enrolled in UPK, which represents 60 percent of all 4-year-olds in the state.

Dawn Odean, director of the UPK program, said the first year was focused on a family’s experience in applying. She said feedback on the streamlined process was mostly positive.  Ninety-four percent of families received one of their top two choices.

She acknowledged however, the system placed additional burdens on providers, “which isn’t anything that we want to repeat.” The second year of UPK’s focus will be on making the system easier to navigate for providers, she said.

What are UPK’s problems?

Odean told lawmakers that UPK was a policy shift but also a big cultural shift, from a state-funded preschool system that targeted low-income families to one that’s open to all families and gives them the option of also choosing private providers.

Providers were accustomed to enrolling families themselves. Now they have to rely on the state’s online matching system BridgeCare, which they say they aren’t able to access directly, turning what’s normally been an efficient, simple process into an unwieldy one.

In addition, districts are required to collect information on special education status, foster care and homelessness, but right now, they don’t have the ability to update a family’s application if it’s not filled out correctly.

Odean said the department has met with at least 30 school districts individually over the past two weeks to gather concerns.

She told lawmakers several technical changes she hopes can be implemented to get providers the data they need “in just a few clicks.” 

Committee chair Sen. Rachel Zenzinger said school districts and other providers need to be given more control.

“I think that sharing that data has to be equally as important in particular if we're going to make sure that we're serving the students, the homeless students, the foster students, the students with high needs, the students with IEPs and Spanish speaking students and families.”

She said the communication pipeline between providers and families is very spotty because providers don’t have the information they need.

Other lawmaker reactions

Sen. Jeff Bridges said the families he's heard from said UPK was one of the easiest experiences they've had with the government.

“As you're looking to make changes for next year, please, please, please maintain that easy entry for families,” he said.

However, school district officials have reported hundreds of low-income families and families whose native language isn’t English found the system confusing and didn't know how to apply.

Other lawmakers were concerned that in some cases homeless children were being rejected for placement. Odean explained that in some cases those families hadn’t also listed a second qualifying factor, such as being low-income, in order to qualify for 30 hours of child care.

Some state lawmakers grilled department officials on why early childhood provider perceptions are different from what officials described.

Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer highlighted the concern that nearly 10,000 families with children with special needs who were told two weeks before school started that their free 30 hours were being cut to 15. She echoed a concern of school districts that children with disabilities may be attending private preschool and don’t know about the services they’re entitled to, which districts are required to notify families about under federal law.

“We know that's their charge and it's our charge to ensure that they're aligned in our enrollment system and funded,” responded Odean. “The reality is it's been really hard…. We know we're not done. We know that there's more work to do.”

School districts, private providers, and special education advocates say big problems remain

The organization that represents private providers, the Early Childhood Education Association of Colorado, wants the state’s matching system that uses a complex algorithm to go away. BridgeCare can still inform families of what’s out there, but it wants families to be able to enroll directly with their provider of choice.

“We’ve got programs that for five months were not visible in the system,” she said. “That's unacceptable. Parent choice is picking the program that you want your child to go to, and if there's that space there, then you go.”

She said there were many instances where a program had space but the program’s algorithm sent them elsewhere. She said businesses were hurt.

“The statute (law enacting UPK) does not require an algorithm,” she said.

At least one school district said if that’s not an option, families could still apply through BridgeCare, but the state should let districts and providers manage it on the back end to move families from site to site or be able to tell a family how far down the wait list they are. 

“That's the type of stuff that there are fixes there, but they've got to be willing to let us have them,” said Mat Aubuchon, director of early childhood education in the Westminster School District. He said just Wednesday, CDEC reassigned a child into his district when the parent chose, enrolled, and was already attending a Denver district school.

The most recent polling among special education directors in districts meanwhile, shows there’s still widespread frustration with the inaccuracy of the student lists, the amount of time it's taking to get the list accurate and get kids enrolled – and the uncertainties about state reimbursement.  

Lucinda Hundley, a special adviser to the Colorado Consortium of Directors of Special Education, said she is still disappointed the state didn’t tap into the expertise of special education directors when it was offered three years ago. And she’s still puzzled that’s not happening now.

“Why can't we just come to the table and why can't we solve this problem? Why are we waiting to be told? Why aren't we being invited in to problem solve, to address the issues, particularly around kids with disabilities?”