As Colorado prepares to launch free universal preschool, lawmakers are taking up legislation that could reshape Colorado’s early childhood landscape and reverberate for decades to come.
Many advocates and early educators laud the changes laid out in a 485-page bill, including the creation of a new state early childhood agency, saying it will elevate the profile of early childhood issues, cut red tape for families and providers, and dramatically expand preschool access.
But the plan also has prompted concerns about how school district roles could change and whether they’ll be left serving a disproportionate share of students with special needs. And some early childhood leaders worry about how fast the process is moving, how many details are unresolved, and whether there are enough providers to meet new enrollment demands.
Angela Fedler, who heads several early childhood programs for the Delta County School District in western Colorado, said, “I love the idea of universal preschool. I believe in the idea of universal preschool. I do have some fears around it as well.”
“We’re moving really fast for such a big jump,” she said.
Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood and policy initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign, said of the legislation, “There’s a lot of reimagining of the early childhood system to make it child-, family-, and provider-focused and break down those silos, and that requires significant statutory change.
“There is a degree of urgency,” he said, noting that some of the bill’s provisions need to get underway as soon as possible.
State lawmakers recently moved up the early childhood department’s July 1 start date to this spring. The governor likely will name an executive director in the coming weeks. Among other things, the department will roll out universal preschool in the summer of 2023. The initiative, funded largely with a voter-approved nicotine tax, is a top priority for Gov. Jared Polis.
Scott Smith, chief financial and operating officer for the Cherry Creek school district, said his district supports universal preschool but noted the state had “some blind spots and some missteps” in planning, including leaving too small a role for school district leaders during the early stages.
“Not including school people from the beginning really left us behind,” he said.
Smith and other school district leaders said state officials have recently held regular meetings to gather feedback from district staff.
Big changes for school districts
Right now, about a quarter of Colorado’s 4-year-olds attend state-funded preschool, which serves children with certain risk factors. More than three-quarters of those slots are housed in school district classrooms. Most other children attend preschool elsewhere, in child care centers or private preschools, for example.
In expanding to serve all 4-year-olds whose families want 10 hours of tuition-free preschool, the state expects to lean on private providers more than before. The idea is to give parents a choice of settings and help accommodate the influx of new students.
The state no longer will rely exclusively on school districts to administer state-funded preschool locally. Instead, nonprofits, community groups, and districts all will be able to vie for the job.
These changes, along with many others included in the legislation, follow recommendations that a state early childhood commission issued in November and January. Still, school district officials have questions and concerns.
Smith, of the Cherry Creek district, said, “We don’t need private providers. We can accommodate this internally,” speaking about any additional students who want slots under the universal program.
Currently, the district houses all of Cherry Creek’s 800-plus state-funded preschool slots in its classrooms.
But many districts already contract with community-based providers to offer state-funded preschool slots. Denver, the state’s largest district, is one of them.
Priscilla Hopkins, the district’s executive director of early education, said the use of both public school classrooms and private preschools — often called “mixed delivery” — works well.
“I think parents want high-quality preschool,” she said. “As school districts, that needs to be our north star.”
Fedler, of Delta County, agreed, but worries that private providers could shy away from the universal preschool program if subject to lots of new quality requirements.
“It’s hard, especially in rural Colorado, to get people to want to work with little learners,” she said. “If we start asking more of them, how many more of them will walk away?”
What about preschoolers with disabilities?
Some school district leaders worry that the universal preschool program — specifically the availability of slots in private programs — could hurt children with disabilities.
Currently, the vast majority of those children are served in public school classrooms that also include a sizable share of typically developing children. But what happens if lots of families with typical children opt for private programs, segregating children with disabilities in public schools?
“We want to make sure we don’t become the special education preschool,” Smith said.
Theoretically, the families of children with disabilities may choose community-based preschools when universal preschool launches, but it’s not clear whether or how those programs will provide free therapies or other services outlined in those preschoolers’ special education plans.
Mat Aubuchon, the director of early childhood and elementary programs in the Westminster district north of Denver, said under federal special education law, school districts must ensure that students with disabilities get the right services from qualified staff members.
“We don’t want to set an expectation that [special education] services can just happen anywhere,” he said.
Aubuchon said he’s not opposed to the mixed-delivery model, but said it must be planned carefully to ensure preschoolers with disabilities are appropriately served. Placements, he said, will have to be determined case by case.
Other sticking points
Besides providing for an expanded field of preschool providers, the new legislation envisions a simple application process — one that allows families to easily apply for universal preschool and other early childhood programs.
Just about everyone agrees with the idea in principle.
But some school leaders worry that integrating technologies from different programs into one application is too complicated to roll out in a year. If it’s not done well from the get-go, it’s just “one more confusing thing for families to deal with,” said Aubuchon.
Claudia Strait, who heads the Early Childhood Council for Yuma, Washington, and Kit Carson counties in eastern Colorado, said many families in her area don’t speak English and aren’t computer savvy, so she hopes the new application process won’t leave them out.
Some early childhood leaders are also leery about the plan to empower the new agency’s executive director to make rules, which spell out how state laws should be implemented.
The provision is meant to make the new department nimble, but some observers worry it puts a lot of power in one person’s hands.
“We’d prefer to see some sort of accountability,” said Smith of Cherry Creek. “I’m not sure what mechanism exists right now that would hold that executive director accountable.”
About half of state agencies have a rule-making board and half don’t. The new early childhood department would have a rule-making advisory council and state officials also say the executive director would have to follow state laws that require public hearings and testimony on state regulations.
Aubuchon said a rule-making board might be beneficial for the first couple years of the new department, with that authority transferring to the department’s executive director later on.
Strait said she’s a little nervous about the new executive director having so much power, but is also circumspect about the many unknowns that lay ahead.
“It’s just like anything else, anything that’s new, it’s going to be hard adjusting,” she said. “The longer that it’s in place, the smoother it gets.”
Ann Schimke is a senior reporter at Chalkbeat, covering early childhood issues and early literacy. Contact Ann at firstname.lastname@example.org.