Flanked by some of Denver’s most savvy politicos — and four-year-olds — Mayor Michael Hancock today announced plans to ask city voters in November to renew and raise a sales tax to fund the Denver Preschool Program.

The program, which Hancock and others said has become a model for other cities around the nation, uses tax dollars to fund the nonprofit that provides preschool tuition support for families and fund professional development and research to boost quality in city’s preschools.

Voters narrowly approved the 12 cent sales tax on every $100 dollars in 2006, and the tax is set to expire in 2016.

The ballot question that Denver City Council will likely refer to voters will ask them to raise the sales tax to 15 cents on every $100. If approved, the sales tax would extend for another 10 years.

“The Denver Preschool Program has proven that high quality early childhood education helps prepare Denver’s youngest students, no matter where they live or what color their skin to enter kindergarten ready to learn,” Hancock said. “It’s not just about closing the achievement gap, but eliminating it all together.”

The new revenue will be used to restore cuts to year-round preschool that were made during the recession, meet the growing demand for full- and extended-day programing, and keep up with the rising cost of tuition, according to a media release from Preschool Matters, the campaign supporting the pending ballot question.

The campaign, emboldened by early success of the Denver Preschool Program and a recovering economy, plans to build and mobilize a constituency of former families who have benefited from the program to ensure a higher margin of victory in November.

“We have families and children to point to that prove the program’s success,” Hancock said. “We have the data.”

An independent study paid for by the program found that 64 percent of Denver Public Schools third graders who had previously attended a preschool in the program scored proficient or advanced in reading on the state’s standardized tests. That was compared to 58 percent of third graders who did not attend preschool.

Preschoolers attending the Hope Children's Center in northeast Denver listen to speakers at a June 11 press conference announcing a campaign to ask voters to renew and raise a sales tax to fund the Denver Preschool Program.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Preschoolers attending the Hope Children’s Center in northeast Denver listen to speakers at a June 11 press conference announcing a campaign to ask voters to renew and raise a sales tax to fund the Denver Preschool Program.

Councilman Albus Brooks, whose own children have participated in the program, highlighted generally accepted research that proves a correlation between third grade reading scores and graduation rates. He said local research found Denver students who are reading at third grade have a 90 percent graduation rate.

Since the program launched in 2008, more than 34,000 students have graduated from a participating preschool, including 5,400 who graduated just a few weeks ago, said Jennifer Landrum, the program’s president and CEO.

As of April, about 65 percent of students attended a DPS school, Landrum said. The other 35 percent attend a variety of private programs.

Tuition support — which is based on family size and income, quality of the preschool, and type of program — accounted for 75 percent of the program’s expenses last year. Monthly payments, made directly to the preschools, range from about $36 a month to $485 a month, Landrum said in a subsequent interview. The average tuition credit during the 2013-14 school year was $290.

The program received $11.8 million in tax revenues last year.

More than half of the families that utilize the program have a combined household income of $30,000.

The Denver Preschool Program works with more than 250 different preschools that are either run by DPS or independently, including faith-based and family care organizations. Each school must participate in an annual quality review and improvement process, Landrum said. That’s led to nearly 200 more quality preschools, as defined by the program, in Denver today than when the program started in 2008.

No immediate opposition to the proposed 2014 question is known at this time.

However, the Anti-Defamation League opposed the 2006 ballot initiative because the program would provide tuition support toward faith-based organizations.

Supporters of the program said giving families a choice of the city’s best programs was paramount and religious waivers were provided.

The proposed ballot question’s first step toward November is to clear the city’s Health, Safety, Education and Services, which is chaired by Brooks. He said he expects the committee to hear the proposal within two weeks.

Chairing the campaign will be Brooks, President of the Denver Children’s Museum Mike Yankovich, and Chief Revenue Officer for Entravision Communications Corp. Mario Carrera.