Universal pre-K coming to Colorado by 2023, and now there’s a plan

Colorado will offer universal pre-K by 2023, and government leaders announced Wednesday that their plan to do so includes creating the 20th state department.

Gov. Jared Polis promised that adding a Department of Early Childhood would improve the state’s ability to consolidate funding from disparate sources — local, federal, state and grant money — and offer easier, centralized access to resources for parents.

“Early-childhood advocates have been asking for years for this,” said House Speaker Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat who will help shepherd a bill through the legislature to create this new state department. “We’re finally here to deliver on that ask.”

Florida, Vermont and the District of Columbia currently offer free universal pre-K without enrollment caps or funding limitations. President Joe Biden has proposed taking this nationwide, with $200 billion to fund universal early childhood education for all students for the two years before kindergarten. (Colorado’s plan concerns only one year before kindergarten.)

The seed money for this initiative comes from the November passage of Proposition EE, which took effect Jan. 1, imposing for the first time a tax on vaping products and eventually tripling state cigarette taxes by 2027. Starting in the 2023-24 fiscal year, the bulk of these revenues, expected to reach almost $300 million by 2027, will go to early childhood education.

Colorado Women’s Hall-of-Famer and early childhood education guru Anna Jo Garcia Haynes is the namesake for this forthcoming bill. She shared a story at a news conference Wednesday about rallying child care workers at the Capitol decades ago in pursuit of a $2-per-hour raise. They placed babies on the desks of state lawmakers.

“I’m convinced that this is the peak for early childhood,” she said of Wednesday’s announcement. “This is where the system is going to be made.”

Under the state’s plan, by the start of the 2023-24 school year, every family in Colorado will have access to at least 10 hours a week of pre-K per child, if they want it. The state already has a universal kindergarten program, which passed in 2019.

State projections suggest the participation rate for the pre-K program will be between 60% and 80% — a significant jump from the current rate. According to the nonprofit advocacy group Colorado Children’s Campaign, 15,727 children in their year before kindergarten — 4-year-olds and some 5-year-olds — currently have access to state-funded preschool, a fraction of the 66,000 children projected to be eligible come 2023.

Meeting the demand will be a challenge, as Children’s Campaign data show the state’s early childhood system can currently can serve less than half of the eligible population. The state has not identified a target for what it’ll need, but the new state department paired with several related bills that’ll need to go through the legislature will be designed in part to address the shortcomings.

Plus, state officials aren’t quite certain how they’ll reach every family who may want to participate or how to meet the various needs of children who, for example, may not speak English or have special needs.

“Having the two-year buffer between now and when we have to stand this up is good, because we’re doing the work to get all this in place,” said Rep. Emily Sirota, a Denver Democrat and a sponsor of the bill.

Sirota said she hopes the state will be able to fund many more than 10 hours per week, per student.

“Ten hours a week is not enough for working parents,” she said, adding that the new state department may help there: “Another goal that we have is that we can better leverage the dollars we have to blend and braid funding sources to increase that amount from 10 hours for many families.”

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