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State Sen. Jeff Bridges and Gov. Jared Polis play with geometric tiles on a visit to Village for Early Childhood Education at North.

State Sen. Jeff Bridges and Gov. Jared Polis play with geometric tiles on a visit to Village for Early Childhood Education at North.

Polis pitches preschool expansion, insists Colorado can afford it

Surrounded by parents of preschoolers, early childhood teachers, and school district officials, Gov. Jared Polis didn’t have to make the case for universal preschool. Instead, they made it for him.

“Kids that come into kindergarten and haven’t been to preschool are behind,” said Kathleen Ambron, director of elementary education for Littleton Public Schools. “Our district phones are ringing off the walls right now with, ‘Tell me about preschool. Tell me about options.’ Parents know that it’s important.”

Polis visited Village for Early Childhood Education at North in Littleton on Friday afternoon to promote preschool expansion. The south suburban school system added 24 subsidized preschool spots this year, bringing the total to 250 districtwide. Those were just a few of the 5,000 new slots made available statewide as part of the rollout of full-day kindergarten.

That expansion was made possible by districts shifting money from kindergarten to preschool, now that Colorado is paying the full cost of kindergarten. This year, Polis is seeking $27.6 million to add 6,000 new slots to the Colorado Preschool Program, which would serve half of an estimated 80,000 eligible 3- and 4-year-old children. To participate in the program, children must have certain risk factors, with the most common one being living in poverty.

Polis has pledged that Colorado will have universal preschool access for 4-year-olds by the end of his first term in 2023. Asked to define that, Polis said, “Every kid should be able to go to preschool, and that’s an important part of their future success.” It doesn’t necessarily mean free preschool for all children.

“In Oklahoma, every kid can go to preschool,” he said. “It’s about time we caught up with Oklahoma.”

Many lawmakers, including Democrats from the governor’s own party, have said they’re not sure Colorado can afford a major preschool expansion, even if they believe in the value of early childhood education. Colorado every year withholds about $500 million from K-12 schools, when compared to constitutional requirements.

But state Sen. Jeff Bridges of Greenwood Village, who accompanied Polis on the preschool visit, said Friday, “We can’t afford not to. If you look at the long-term impacts, there is no better dollar we can spend than the dollar spent on early childhood education.”

Polis said that his preschool request is part of a balanced budget and will pay dividends in higher literacy rates, better high school graduation rates, higher earnings in adulthood, and even lower incarceration.

“If we can expand several thousand slots a year, we can grow our preschool capacity in a way that serves more kids and doesn’t take away from other budget priorities,” he said.

Advocates of early childhood education and public health have filed paperwork to ask voters to approve new nicotine taxes that could raise as much as $300 million a year for preschool for 4-year-olds. Polis supported a similar proposal last year that failed to get legislative approval. On Friday, he stopped short of endorsing the effort, saying that he would wait to see which one of several potential initiatives is approved for the ballot. He added that Colorado needs to do something to reduce teen vaping, another goal of the initiatives’ backers.

Doris Solorzano, whose 4-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son attend Village, shared a story with the governor that illustrates the difficult balancing act faced by many low-income families.

Solorzano recently received an eviction notice. Even the cheaper apartments she’s been able to find demand not just first month’s rent and deposit but also that the household earns three times the monthly rent, an impossibility on just her husband’s wages.

She would like to work, but if she does that, the family will probably make too much to qualify for child care assistance. Without assistance, she would have to pull her 3-year-old out of school — and would not be able to work.

Solorzano said she also doesn’t want to suspend her son’s education. He has special needs, and when he first started preschool, he didn’t talk or appear to understand much, she said. He had explosive emotional outbursts. Now he’s an engaged learner who can follow directions and manage his feelings.

“If my son doesn’t qualify, I will have to stop his education,” she said. “And education is really important.”

Such stories are not unusual for preschools serving families in poverty, and Ambron said the district does everything it can to help parents find assistance.

Preschool operators, meanwhile, face their own balancing acts, with money for subsidized preschool slots coming from multiple federal and state sources. The federal Head Start program pays more for each student than do state sources, but covers far fewer students. One state source can be used for full- or half-day programs, while another can only be used for half-day slots, which make it harder for parents to work while their children are in school.

Once all the subsidized slots are taken, other parents have to pay tuition. The district always has a waitlist for its preschool seats.

“It does just take money,” said Brian Ewert, superintendent of Littleton Public Schools. “I do think we have a good pathway if the governor or the legislature ever pursued universal preschool. I’m always worried about what sort of tax would sustain this. Sin taxes typically don’t, but we’ll take whatever we can get. It is the best bang for our buck for changing the trajectory of a child.”