Colorado got a high-profile pat on the back Monday with a visit from U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King, who lauded the state’s efforts to raise child care quality and improve early childhood systems.
He whirled through Denver before heading to Delaware, where he’ll conclude a two-day tour meant to spotlight states that have launched successful early childhood initiatives using federal Race to the Top dollars. The signature Obama administration program awarded more than $1 billion to 20 states.
In Colorado, the money helped create a new mandatory child care rating system called Colorado Shines. Launched in February 2015, the program gives parents a simple way to gauge child care quality and comparison shop. It also sets a high bar for providers seeking the top rating, a feat only 12 of the state’s 4,600 providers have accomplished so far.
King started the day with a stop at Mile High Early Learning, a Montessori-inspired preschool in Denver’s City Park West neighborhood, where he joined children in singing songs about sea creatures and eating pretend sushi. Next up was a roundtable discussion with more than two dozen of the state’s early childhood heavy hitters.
Leaders from state agencies, advocacy groups, child care centers and early childhood councils highlighted efforts to create the new rating system, improve data infrastructure and expand training opportunities for child care providers.
The discussion told the story of how federal money helped the state transition from a fragmented and sometimes ineffective set of early childhood systems to something more cohesive and efficient.
“Colorado is clearly using their $45 million well,” said King, during a Q-and-A session with reporters.
Reggie Bicha, executive director of the state’s human services department, said the state’s Race to the Top spending will eventually be reflected in better outcomes for Colorado kids — improvements in kindergarten readiness, third-grade reading proficiency and high school and college graduation rates.
While the event was mostly a feel-good summary of Colorado’s early childhood progress, there was also mention of where Colorado — and most states — still need to improve. One perennial problem is low pay for child care workers.
A recent federal report found that Colorado preschool teachers earn a median salary of about $24,000, while their kindergarten counterparts earn nearly twice that.
“That’s a very significant gap and what that does is it makes hard for people to stay,” King said. “One of the promising things Colorado is doing … is helping folks get the credit hours they need so (they) can see a path toward eventually having a bachelor’s degree and earning a little bit more.”
Bicha also noted that Colorado reimburses child care providers with high quality ratings at a higher rate through the state’s child care subsidy program.
Aside from the wage issue, there was a nod to the unique problems of small, rural providers who often have limited ability to climb the state’s ratings ladder, and sometimes no incentive because parents clamor to use their services regardless of their rating.
Teri Linke, a provider from Grand County who participated in the roundtable, urged the group to invite small, rural providers into the child care conversation.