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Gov. Polis signs Colorado universal preschool bill into law

Small children run around chasing bubbles and waving flags in front of Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, who is seated at a table and signing a bill. A large crowd of cheering adults stands behind him.

Children play at Clayton Early Learning in Denver as Gov. Jared Polis signs into a law a new free universal preschool program.

Erica Meltzer / Chalkbeat

Inside Colorado's free preschool initiative

Starting next year, every Colorado 4-year-old will have a chance to attend preschool at no cost to their parents, under legislation signed Monday by Gov. Jared Polis.

“With this bill, families in Colorado with 4-year-olds will have access to free preschool in the fall of 2023, saving them money and preparing kids for success,” said Polis, noting the benefits his own children experienced from preschool. 

The program promises 4-year-olds 10 hours a week of tuition-free preschool in public school classrooms or private settings, such as child care centers, churches, or homes licensed to provide preschool. Funding will come from the state’s existing preschool program, which serves children with certain risk factors, and from proceeds of a nicotine tax Colorado voters approved in 2020.

The goal is for parents to be able to access the program through a single application that also determines whether they are eligible for other early childhood services. Polis said this aspect isn’t just about convenience.

“We all get to go through the same front door,” he said. “I think that makes a powerful statement about equity.”

The bill represents a major expansion of early childhood education in a state that four years ago didn’t provide free full-day kindergarten, issues that Polis pledged to address as a candidate in 2018. Up for re-election this year, the governor has now delivered on both full-day kindergarten and universal preschool, but many details remain to be worked out with the preschool plan.

Colorado Free Preschool Bill Provisions

Key provisions of Colorado’s universal preschool bill:
  • Provides 10 hours of tuition-free preschool for 4-year-olds statewide, as well as a smaller number of 3-year-olds — those who have disabilities or who have certain risk factors.
  • Gives the executive director of the new department the authority to make rules, in consultation with an advisory committee.
  • Pledges to provide universal preschool in various settings, such as public schools, private centers, and homes.
  • Charges the new department with creating a single application for publicly funded early childhood programs, including universal preschool.

Read more about universal preschool.

Polis arrived at the bill signing accompanied by Denver’s South High Ravens drumline and a pint-size parade of students from Clayton Early Learning Center. The children and their teachers waved tiny Colorado flags while dozens of state officials and early childhood advocates held signs that read, “Free Universal Preschool, Saving Families Money,” with Polis’ name on the bottom.

“Today’s signing is historic, but we’ll truly get to see the incredible impact of this policy for many years to come, even generations to come,” said Senate President Stephen Fenberg, who co-sponsored the bill. 

Co-sponsor state Sen. Janet Buckner, an Aurora Democrat, recalled how she started her career as a speech and language therapist in 1975 at what was then the Hope Center on the Clayton Campus. She screened children there for language delays and quickly came to understand that children with access to early education had a major advantage.

More than anyone else, Buckner said she wanted to thank longtime early childhood leader Anna Jo Haynes, who mentored her and advocated for preschool for more than 40 years. 

Two little girls sit on a brick wall. One looks distracted and squirmy, while the other claps her hands. A large crowd of adults stands behind them. The adults hold signs that say “Free Universal Preschool.”

Clayton Early Learning students Iris Azul Perez-Gutierrez, in yellow, and Kimiko Smith cheer the launch of universal preschool while longtime early childhood advocate Anna Jo Haynes, seated in pink, listens to Gov. Jared Polis speak.

Erica Meltzer / Chalkbeat

“We knew that this was doable, but there was such a large amount of stakeholding, so many parents, providers, people who are on the front lines, to make sure that kids have access and now families can go to one place, fill out one application, and not leave anything on the table when it comes to services for their children,” she said. “So I couldn’t be happier and I couldn’t be more proud.”

Haynes called the bill signing “the biggest thing in my life” after having her own children. She recalled serving on the board of an organization that served older youth, a predecessor of Clayton. The experience led her to push for early intervention.

“They were working with teenage kids who had problems, and I said, let’s start with the little kids so they don’t have problems,” she said. 

She also recalled taking babies to the Capitol to lobby lawmakers for a pay raise for preschool teachers from $4 a day to $6 a day. Low pay continues to be a major challenge in attracting and keeping qualified teachers

Colorado is not the first state to launch universal preschool and has work to do to achieve supporters’ goal of being a national model. The state’s current preschool program meets only four of 10 quality benchmarks established by Rutgers University’s National Institute for Early Education Research. 

Colorado’s planned 10-hour-a-week schedule could also pose problems for working families who need longer child care. State officials say they’ll offer additional hours of free preschool to students with the greatest needs, but it’s not clear yet how many children will qualify. 

The funding measure that supports the preschool expansion passed overwhelmingly in a tax-averse state, and local officials from across the state advocated for the bill. The main provisions of the bill, which includes details about how the state’s new early childhood agency will run, were developed by working groups and previewed in town hall meetings around the state. 

But many Republicans legislators voted against the bill. They raised concerns about the creation of a new entitlement program and the authority of the Department of Early Childhood director.

Among the many unresolved issues are how the state will ensure high-quality preschool throughout the state, how the program will find enough providers and teachers, and what role school districts will play, including whether they’ll end up enrolling a disproportionate share of young students with disabilities. 

Senior Reporter Ann Schimke contributed.

Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer covers education policy and politics and oversees Chalkbeat Colorado’s education coverage. Contact Erica at emeltzer@chalkbeat.org.

Gov. Jared Polis sits at a table with a blue tablecloth, bent over a stack of papers. He’s signing one of them. Children play in front of him and adults stand behind him and cheer. A banner to the left lists the states’s early childhood investments.

The signing of the universal preschool bill represents a historic moment for Colorado and the start of an even larger task ahead.

Erica Meltzer / Chalkbeat

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