Eight years after Denver voters narrowly approved the sales tax ballot measure that created the Denver Preschool Program, they are being asked in ballot issue 2A whether to continue and expand that tax.
Advocates of the DPP program, including a host of political heavy-hitters, say it’s helped ensure school readiness, boost third-grade test scores and improve preschool quality in the city. There is no organized group opposing the measure, but skeptics like City Councilor Jeanne Faatz say providing preschool subsidies should be the state’s role not the city’s and that the program’s universal approach means that tax-payers are subsidizing preschool for affluent families who don’t truly need the help.
The DPP program provides preschool tuition credits to four-year-olds in Denver, with a tiered scale that means low-income families whose children attend highly-rated preschools get the most assistance and higher-income families whose children attend lower-rated preschools get the least.
If 2A passes, the sales tax would be raised from .12 percent to .15 percent, or 15 cents for every $100 spent in Denver on taxable items. The additional revenue would be used to reinstate summer preschool programs, increase the amount of tuition credits and offer help with extended-day preschool. The measure would extend the tax until 2026.
The existing DPP sales tax, which passed with 50.6 percent of the vote in 2006, won’t expire until December 2016. Both sides agree that if the ballot measure fails next month, voters will have other opportunities to consider a sales tax extension for DPP before the tuition credits stop at the end of the 2016-17 school year.
Still, Jennifer Landrum, president and CEO of DPP, believes now is the time for a renewal.
“There is an urgency for voters to vote this year,” she said. “First off, the city decided that this was the year to go back to the voters…We’ve raised the money. We’ve launched the campaign. We’re on that course.”
A boon for student achievement?
There are now seven years of academic data available from students who’ve participated in the DPP program. Much of it comes from annual evaluations conducted by the Denver consulting firm Augenblick, Palaich and Associates in tandem with Clayton Early Learning Institute.
The most recent report from the firm indicates that about 90 percent of DPP students score well enough on national literacy and math assessments to be considered school-ready. DPP’s 2013 Report to the Community actually cites higher rates—98 percent for literacy and 99 percent for math—but the report explains that those numbers are based on cut scores the authors believe are too low to accurately reflect school-readiness.
With the first two DPP cohorts now in fourth and fifth grade, there’s also evidence that DPP participants do better on third-grade state tests than non-DPP students. Overall, 64 percent of DPP kids were “proficient” or “advanced” on 2014 reading tests compared to 56 percent of non-participants.
The spread was about six points in math, with 63 percent of DPP participants proficient or advanced compared to 57 percent of non-participants. Such differences in proficiency rates held true for participants and non-participants of all races as well as those who are English-language learners.
What about the state?
While there doesn’t seem to be a fundamental argument about preschool’s value this election season, there are questions about Denver’s approach. Faatz believes the state’s Colorado Preschool Program, which funds preschool and some full-day kindergarten for more than 23,000 at-risk children, represents a better way to go. She said it makes more sense to expand the reach of the state’s program than have another layer of bureaucracy working only for Denver children.
“I think the state is more efficient in the way it does it,” said Faatz, who cast the lone no vote when Denver’s city council decided in August to put the DPP sales tax question on the ballot.
Faatz also worries that DPP’s administrative costs are excessive. Although administrative expenses are capped at 5 percent by city ordinance, she said some line items don’t seem properly categorized and administrative costs would far exceed the cap if they were.
But Landrum said city ordinance defines exactly what is counted as administrative costs—things like staff salaries, facility costs and accounting fees–and that DPP is in compliance.
And Landrum pointed out that even with repeated efforts at the state level to expand CPP, there still aren’t enough slots for all eligible children.
“The city and county of Denver is trying to do better.”
Focus on quality
One aspect of the Denver Preschool Program that everyone seems to agree on is the focus on helping preschools improve and sustain their quality. Ten percent of the program’s budget is dedicated to quality improvement measures. This may mean providing coaches to help preschool providers prepare for rating visits, paying for teacher training or making facility improvements.
“I think the thing that’s really exemplary about what DPP is doing…is they’re investing not just in kids but in quality,” said Cheryl Caldwell, director of early childhood education for Denver Public Schools.
Last year, that quality improvement money paid for 15 hours of training for paraprofessionals at the district’s DPP sites as well as for teachers to attend a major early childhood conference.
In addition to designating part of its budget for preschool improvement, Landrum said DPP’s tiered reimbursement model incentivizes parents to select higher-quality programs by providing larger tuition credits. It’s a model that seems to be catching on across the country.
“Denver has been at the forefront around that idea,” she said. “Quality is expensive and having higher tuition support for higher quality programs helps maintain quality.”
Nearly 90 percent of DPP participants attend preschools with the top two ratings from Qualistar, a highly-regarded rater of early childhood programs in the state. Up till now, those ratings have been voluntary and providers were not required to go through the process, but many Denver providers did because of DPP.
Landrum said when DPP launched in the fall of 2007 only 52 preschool providers in Denver had been rated by Qualistar. That number is now 227, with an additional 18 that have national accreditation equivalent to Qualistar’s top four-star rating.
“At the end of the day I think this is good for Denver…preschool is the beginning of a successful academic career,” she said.