4 takeaways from Colorado’s new rules on universal preschool quality

Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Most universal preschool quality rules will be phased in over two to three years.

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By Ann Schimke, Chalkbeat Colorado

New rules governing Colorado’s popular universal preschool program could cut class sizes at some preschools, put modest guardrails on curriculum, and require teacher training on trauma-informed care and preschool suspension and expulsion.

But these and most other preschool quality rules adopted by the state Thursday won’t take effect until the third year of universal preschool, which starts in the fall of 2025. In other words, the state’s more than 2,000 universal preschool providers won’t have to make many immediate changes.

The new rules are the culmination of months of debate about how to ensure quality in the state’s new $322 million preschool program without heaping new regulations on already strained providers. Coming a year later than originally planned, the rules are also symptomatic of the program’s rushed and sometimes chaotic rollout.

Despite these stumbling blocks, families have flocked to join. This year, about 39,000 4-year-olds receive 10 to 30 hours of tuition-free preschool through the universal preschool program — 62% of that age group in the state. Next year, enrollment is expected to rise.

Universal preschool is funded with money from Colorado’s previous smaller state-funded preschool program along with proceeds from a voter-approved nicotine tax.

Here are some key takeaways from the new rules:

Class sizes capped at 20, with exceptions

After months of debate about preschool class size, including pushback from private preschools that warned they’d lose money if they had to cut class sizes, Colorado will phase in a 20-student class size cap for most universal preschool providers over the next two years. These limits match recommendations from national early childhood groups.

The current 24-student class size maximum and staff-student ratio of 1:12 will stay in place for the 2024-25 school year, drop to 22 students and 1 to 11 for the 2025-26 school year, and finally settle at 20 students and 1 to 10 for the 2026-27 school year.

There is one major exception to these eventual limits. Universal preschool providers that have earned one of the highest two ratings — Level 4 or 5 — on the state’s Colorado Shines quality rating system, will be allowed to have classes of 24 4-year-olds and staff-student ratios of 1 to 12. Currently, about 40% of Colorado’s more than 1,900 universal preschool providers have ratings of Level 4 or 5.

However, many of these highly rated providers voluntarily keep 4-year-old class sizes lower than 24. For example, Denver Public Schools caps class sizes at 20 at its more than 70 preschool locations, all of which have Level 4 ratings.

In addition to the exception for highly rated preschools, exemptions from class size rules will be available — as they are now — through hardship waivers granted to preschools where larger classes are a key part of the educational model, for example, in Montessori preschools.

Curriculum rules fuzzy, more clarity coming in 2025

When school starts in the fall of 2025, preschools in Colorado’s universal program will have to use curriculums from a state-approved list, according to the new rules adopted Thursday. But that list, which will be housed in an online “resource bank” with lots of other preschool-related material, has not been created yet. In addition, the criteria that will be used to select acceptable curriculum has not yet been established.

The approved curriculum list is the state’s chance to put guardrails on what is now ungoverned territory. Currently — and for 2024-25 school year — universal preschool providers can use any curriculum they want or none at all.

Training on social-emotional health, trauma, and school removal

Starting in July 2025, new universal preschool teachers must have five hours of training above what’s required for their counterparts at preschools that aren’t in the state’s universal program. Those five extra hours must touch on trauma-informed care and the prevention of suspension and expulsion among other things.

“We know those are issues a lot of families are facing right now,” Ian McKenzie, a spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Early Childhood, said of the training topics. “To make those things the requirement feels correct for Colorado.”

Existing universal preschool teachers must also take five hours of training each year covering trauma-informed care, preschool suspension and expulsion, and other topics. While those hours must touch on the topics spelled out by the state, they count toward the 15 hours of training all early childhood teachers are already required to take annually.

New rules don’t come with state funding

With no state money specifically earmarked for preschool quality improvements, it will be up to preschool providers to figure out how to comply with the new rules over the next few years. McKenzie said the early childhood department may have some one-time dollars available for quality improvement efforts, but the amount and timing is not yet clear.

Large or veteran preschool providers may have an easier time complying with new quality rules, but others will have to find money to buy new state-approved curriculum or lower class sizes.

Such costs spotlight the ongoing tension between the lofty ambitions of universal preschool leaders and the reality that there’s a limited pot of funding for the program. Last summer, just weeks before the program launched, thousands of families who had expected the state to cover full-day preschool found out the program would only pay for half-day classes because there wasn’t enough money.

While the state has proposed a partial fix to this problem for the coming school year, some preschool providers and advocates continue to worry there’s not enough funding to provide the caliber of program state leaders, including Gov. Jared Polis, envisioned.

Ann Schimke is a senior reporter at Chalkbeat, covering early childhood issues and early literacy. Contact Ann at [email protected].