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Colorado recruits providers for its free preschool program. Parents are next.

A woman teacher works with three young children on a multicolored rug in the classroom.

Colorado estimate they’ll need enough room for 30,000 4-year-olds next year in the state’s new universal preschool program.

Christian K. Lee for Chalkbeat

Inside Colorado's free preschool initiative

Jennifer Piper, a longtime home-based child care provider in Loveland, is brimming with questions about how Colorado’s new universal preschool program will work when it launches next fall.

She recently sent a bulleted list of 14 questions to local officials, including basic ones about teacher qualification and curriculum requirements. 

The state needs to win over providers like Piper to meet its ambitious goal of quickly building a preschool program capable of serving every 4-year-old in the state as well as some 3-year-olds. 

And there are early signs that they are ready to sign on. More than 250 preschool providers, offering a total of 12,000 seats, have signed up for the universal program so far, according to state officials.

Colorado’s universal preschool program is one of Gov. Jared Polis’ signature priorities and represents a major expansion of tuition-free preschool in the state. The $335 million program is slated to serve 30,000 4-year-olds next year and even more in future years, according to state estimates. It will replace a smaller state-funded preschool program that currently serves about 19,000 children from low-income families or who have other risk factors. 

Universal preschool resources

Universal preschool information

In addition to serving more children, the new universal program will provide more class time to most students and, in most cases, pay preschool providers a higher per-pupil rate than the current program does. The state’s early childhood department, which was created less than a year ago, will run the universal program, with early childhood councils or other groups administering it locally

For many early childhood leaders and advocates, recent rapid-fire decisions on the new program have prompted excitement and hope that more Colorado children will benefit from high-quality preschool. When the preschool application opens for families on Jan. 17, officials hope to offer a variety of placement options — in schools, churches, child care centers, and state-licensed homes.

But some key questions remain, including what quality standards universal preschool providers will have to meet. Those rules won’t be out until spring.

It’s a “building the plane as we fly it situation,” said Christina Taylor, CEO of the Early Childhood Council of Larimer County, which will run the preschool program in the county. 

“I’m feeling optimistic but … this first year is kind of a crapshoot,” she said.

A key money question answered

One major question about the program has already been answered.

In mid-November, state officials released the per-pupil dollar amount they’ll pay to providers in the universal preschool program. The annual rates will play a major role in determining whether providers join the universal preschool system, and whether they’ll be able to pay their staff a living wage, as state leaders promised.

On average, providers will get $4,834 for preschoolers attending 10 hours a week; $6,040 for 15 hours a week; and $10,646 for 30 hours a week. Preschool classes will run 9 months a year on a similar schedule to K-12 grades.

Generally, preschool providers are pleased with the rates, which vary somewhat by county or region.

“I do think some places are going to be able to increase pay for their staff with this funding,” said Diane Smith, director of the Douglas County Early Childhood Council, which will coordinate universal preschool programming in the county. 

Mark Arbitrio, who owns Ivybrook Academy in Castle Rock, said the rates are about the same as the tuition he currently charges for 15 hours a week of preschool. He hopes to fill all 48 of his center’s 4-year-old seats as part of the universal program next year.

Arbitrio, whose own 4-year-old son will be in the inaugural universal preschool class, opened his Ivybrook franchise in 2020 after he got laid off from General Electric. He’s hopeful the offer of free preschool for 4-year-olds next year will boost enrollment for younger children too — potentially convincing parents to enroll the siblings of 4-year-olds who otherwise would have stayed at home because of the cost.

“We’ll get a lift from this,” he said. 

Taylor said Larimer County providers have mostly been positive about the rate, which is more per child than what the state currently pays for 10 hours — although one corporate-run preschool leader told her it “wasn’t quite as attractive as they were hoping.”

But the bigger issue is finding enough staff to lead preschool classes, she said. Ongoing worker shortages, exacerbated by the pandemic, have forced some local preschools and child care centers to close classrooms even when they have enough children to fill them. 

In rural Elbert County, all five school districts plan to participate in universal preschool, said Llan Barkley, executive director of the county’s early childhood council, which will coordinate universal preschool there. 

But the county’s preschool rate — $4,724 per child for 10 hours a week — is less than what most of the districts there get for preschoolers in the state’s current program. Unlike the universal preschool rate, the current preschool rate is based on the K-12 school finance formula, which gives some small rural districts substantially more per-pupil funding than most urban or suburban districts. 

Barkley said she’s emphasized to district officials that despite the lower per-pupil rate next year, they’ll be able to have preschool classes of 20 children instead of the current 16, which will bring in additional funding. She expects most districts will stick with the current 10-hour-a-week schedule next year even though universal preschool rules allow 4-year-olds to get 15 tuition-free hours a week. 

Schools in Elbert County, like those in many rural areas, operate only four days a week. Barkley said it will be more feasible for the districts to stick to a 10-hour-a-week preschool program so schools have time to offer morning and afternoon sessions. 

Getting the message to parents

Colorado officials estimate that half of the state’s 4-year-olds will attend free preschool next year, but with the application set to open in less than a month, many Colorado parents know little to nothing about the program. 

Barkley described a typical parent reaction this way: “What? What is this? Can you explain it? I don’t understand.” 

She said local districts have sent informational fliers home in students’ take home folders, but it can be hard to answer parents’ questions when some details aren’t yet available from the state. 

Piper, the home-based child care provider in Loveland, said the vast majority of her families haven’t paid much attention to universal free preschool because they already get free or nearly free child care. That’s because they qualify for state child care subsidies for low-income families. Some pay nothing. Others pay $24 to $240 a month, she said. 

Leaders from the Larimer County early childhood council have already sent out postcards about universal preschool to all county families with 3- or 4-year-olds, and plan to send out another in January. State officials said they’re planning to launch a public awareness campaign about universal preschool in early 2023. 

Arbitrio, of Ivybrook Academy, said, “I think our families are going to be thrilled.”

Ann Schimke is a senior reporter at Chalkbeat, covering early childhood issues and early literacy. Contact Ann at aschimke@chalkbeat.org.

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