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Colorado Is on the Verge of Passing Free Pre-K for All

The state is creating a new agency as part of plans to offer nearly universal preschool in 2023.

Teacher Toby Hankin leads preschoolers in dance during the Creative Movement Class at the Mapleton Early Childhood Center on March 30, 2016, in Boulder, Colorado.

Part of the Series

Colorado Democrats are moving closer to accomplishing what the Biden administration could not after centrist corporate Democrats’ sabotage of the president’s signature Build Back Better legislation: establishing a universal preschool program.

On March 25, the Colorado House of Representatives voted 43-19 to pass an 485-page bill introduced earlier this month that would establish a new state agency, the Department of Early Childhood, and a statewide, universal preschool program. The legislation now heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The new department would launch this spring, and the Colorado Universal Preschool Program would begin in 2023. The program provides 10 hours per week of free preschool for all children the year before they enter kindergarten. Under the bill, parents may choose a preschool provider in the community from public school classrooms or private preschools, a model called “mixed delivery.”

The plan would dramatically expand preschool access in Colorado, while making the process of enrolling easier for both parents and providers. It could also provide a model for other blue states looking to solve longstanding child care issues exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which dealt a disproportionate blow to women’s participation in the workforce.

The bill’s prime sponsor, Democratic State Rep. Emily Sirota of Denver, acknowledged the preschool bill still needs fine-tuning, but said progress is being made on an ambitious effort. “​My heart is just bursting right now,” she said last week during closing remarks before the House Education Committee. “We’re going to be an example, I think, for the rest of the country about how to do this.”

Only eight states and Washington, D.C. currently offer some form of universal pre-kindergarten to 4-year-olds. Colorado’s effort follows on the heels of similar moves in California, which began implementing a transitional kindergarten program last year.

Democratic Gov. Jared Polis and early childhood advocates have championed the Department of Early Childhood and universal preschool program. If enacted, the twin efforts are projected to cost more than $365 million through 2024. More than $190 million of that funding would come from new taxes on nicotine products passed by Colorado voters in 2020. Another $127 million would come from either the state’s general or education fund.

The legislation reflects almost a year of planning on the part of the governor’s office, lawmakers, state agencies, early childhood providers and advocates, and parents, all of whom weighed in on the plans during town halls cities across the state. Last year, Colorado lawmakers passed a measure laying the groundwork for developing the new department and preschool expansion, and Governor Polis signed a separate bill March 1 expediting the department’s launch. The state Early Childhood Leadership Commission, composed of key state stakeholders, issued recommendations in November and January, and continues to work with state leaders as the transition moves forward.

But even as early childhood advocates, school districts and providers celebrate the plan, it is also prompting concerns about still unresolved details amid the preschool program’s fast-paced rollout. The program’s mixed-delivery model means big changes for school districts, who currently administer about three-quarters of state-funded preschool slots to about a quarter of the state’s 4-year-olds.

In expanding the state’s current program to serve all children in the year before kindergarten private providers and nonprofits will now compete for additional slots. Districts are largely backing the model, while working to iron out concerns and questions about just how it will play out in communities large and small.

Among their concerns is whether there will be enough providers to meet new enrollment demands, as well as issues surrounding persistent low wages for early childhood educators.

Wages and Affordability

Colorado has lost more than 3,300 early childhood educators since the onset of the pandemic. A spokesperson for Governor Polis told The Colorado Sun the state currently has 20,325 early childhood education professionals, down from the 23,702 early childhood educators in 2019. Nearly 63,200 4-year-olds are expected to become eligible for the preschool program in 2023, likely drawing 60 to 70 percent of eligible students in its first year, the Sun reports.

While Democratic lawmakers plan to slowly “ramp up” the preschool program over time, persistent low wages for early childhood educators could hinder efforts to retain more preschool teachers if wages don’t rise significantly to keep pace with inflation. Entry-level teachers in the Denver metropolitan area, for example, make as little as $15.87 an hour, according to reporting from the Sun. For many, those wages simply aren’t worth the stresses of the job. In addition to dealing with an uptick in challenging behavior from children since the onset of the pandemic, early childhood educators work intensive schedules, perform physically strenuous tasks, interact with a highly unvaccinated population (since children younger than 5 cannot receive the COVID-19 vaccine), and serve children with a wide and variable set of needs.

But Governor Polis and lawmakers argue that Proposition EE, the voter-approved tobacco tax increase, creates a funding stream for providers to pay their teachers more.

“Even before the pandemic, the field of early care and education, and providers were grossly underpaid…. Many of them were needing to take advantage of safety net programs to make ends meet,” said Angela Rothermel, deputy director of Early Milestones Colorado, an early childhood education advocacy group. “So, it was kind of an untenable situation before the pandemic, and then we then move into an era where programs are closing due to health shutdowns or families making different choices about things. It just exacerbated a lot of fiscal issues.”

While two-thirds of providers surveyed by Early Milestones said they are likely to participate in the new preschool program, almost one-third of center-based providers and nearly half of family child care home providers said they likely would not, citing concerns over cumbersome rules, requirements, paperwork and low pay. For example, some providers have said parent subsidies under the already-existing Colorado Child Care Assistance Program are too low.

Dawn Alexander, executive director of the Early Childhood Education Association of Colorado, tells Truthout that preschools are still struggling to hire more early childhood educators even after the state lowered credentialing requirements in December. She worries private providers could back out of the preschool program if educators become subject additional requirements, such as obtaining a bachelor’s degree. “[Lawmakers] have to make some accommodations there to equalize everything,” Alexander said. “If you want equal pay, then it makes sense to have equal training and that sort of thing, but it does present a significant problem for industry.”

Bill sponsor State Representative Sirota is hoping to solve some of these issues with a separate bipartisan bill that would create an income tax credit ranging from $500 to $1,000 to help retain early childhood educators that includes additional funding streams to bolster the early childhood workforce.

Early Milestones’s Rothermel remains optimistic that lawmakers like Sirota and advocates will continue to work through solutions that will allow the preschool program to grow. “This is very top of mind for everyone who’s doing this work at the state. No one is ignoring the question because we need to really think about the workforce issues if we want to have this program … ready for families in 2023. So, I think there’s a strong commitment to figure it out,” she tells Truthout.

That’s why dedicated funding streams are so crucial for state-level efforts to establish universal pre-K, not only to shore up the workforce but also to ensure affordability for parents and caregivers. In the past three decades, the cost of child care has risen at more than twice the rate of inflation. In some states, it can even cost more than college tuition.

Demand for preschool, however, remains as high as ever: 92 percent of Colorado families surveyed by Early Milestones said they would send their child to the preschool program if money was not a factor. The new preschool program is expected to save families an average of $4,300 a year, according to state estimates.

Moreover, research has long underscored the economic benefits of early childhood education spending. A report released this month by Moody’s Corp projected that policies such as paid family leave and universal pre-K could result in a $1 trillion boost to gross domestic product by 2028, if working-age women become able to participate in the paid workforce at the same rate they do in countries that have child care support systems, such as the United Kingdom, Germany, Sweden and Australia.

During the first year of the pandemic in the United States, nearly 3 million women left the paid workforce. Two years later, most of the 6.6 million U.S. jobs gained since President Joe Biden took office have gone to men, according to the Labor Department. As of early February, there were still 1.4 million fewer employed adult women, compared to 500,000 fewer adult men.

Equity and Governance

Meanwhile, district leaders are working to resolve issues and concerns around how the preschool program’s mixed-delivery model will impact equity, especially concerning special education for children with disabilities.

Mat Aubuchon, the director of early childhood and elementary programs for Westminster Public Schools who served on the Early Childhood Education Leadership Commission, tells Truthout that while he’s not opposed to the mixed-delivery model, it remains crucial that placements for children with disabilities are determined on a case-by-case basis to ensure they will be appropriately served.

It’s still unclear whether private programs will provide essential speech therapy or other special education services required under specialized education plans in the same way that public school classrooms do. This could lead to children with disabilities being segregated in public schools in order to meet the requirements of federal special education law if their families can’t afford specialized private programs that offer such services.

Aubuchon says lawmakers need to make “sure that when we pass policy around mixed delivery, it accounts for the fact that some of these specialized decisions are going to have to be made at the individual family level with the family, the provider and make sure that the environment is right for the student.”

Other sticking points still being ironed out include concerns over how the Department of Early Childhood’s executive director will be empowered to determine how state laws should be implemented. Some education leaders worry the current structure fails to provide adequate accountability.

State officials counter that the new department would have a rule-making advisory council and that the executive director would have to follow state laws requiring public hearings and comment. The legislation would also balance oversight of universal preschool between state and local authorities by creating “local coordinating organizations” tasked with managing funding for local preschool programs and supporting providers, families and local governments in administering the program.

Aubuchon supports a rule-making board and underscored the importance of local coordinating organizations, noting that some communities have a lot of different city and school district jurisdictions. It’s important that state officials provide enough time, he says, for local coordinating organizations to figure out what the preschool program will look like on the local level.

“Districts are very supportive of the concept,” Aubuchon said. “We really liked the concept of aligning some of these programs that have been working a little bit in isolation for the past couple decades. There’s a real opportunity here to make things better for our early childhood students…. We just have to figure out the logistics.”