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What happened to free? Colorado Gov. Polis has changed how he talks about preschool

There are big challenges to paying for preschool in Colorado, a state that does not fully fund its K-12 education system and only this year started paying for full-day kindergarten

Preschool teacher Hannah Halferty leads an activity with students Johanna Martinez, Harrison Johhnston, and Kole Macias at Shawsheen Elementary in Greeley on Thursday, December 12, 2019. (Valerie Mosley/Special to the Colorado Sun)

When Colorado Gov. Jared Polis was running for office, he called for free preschool for all 4-year-olds whose families wanted it.

“We must provide free full-day preschool and kindergarten for our children and our economy to truly thrive,” he wrote in response to Chalkbeat’s candidate questionnaire.

But since taking office, that rhetoric has shifted. In his State of the State speech in early January, Polis pledged to achieve “universal access to quality preschool for 4-year-olds by the end of my first term.”

Asked recently what “universal access” means, he said simply: “It means 4-year-olds can go to preschool.”

But not necessarily for free. “It’s not like kindergarten,” he said. “It takes many forms.”

There are big challenges to paying for preschool in Colorado, a state that does not fully fund its K-12 education system and only this year started paying for full-day kindergarten, another campaign promise of Polis’. The state constitution limits how much revenue policymakers can keep each year, leading to stiff competition for dollars even in a strong economy.

But the shift in rhetoric away from “free preschool” is not unique to Colorado. W. Steven Barnett, senior co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, said that talking about “universal access to preschool” has become commonplace in the early childhood sector nationwide.

However, “it’s not clear what people mean when they say this,” Barnett said. And it’s distinctly different from what we mean when we talk about “universal public education” in the K-12 system.

Planning for a major preschool expansion is challenging. The system is made up of a patchwork of public and private, for-profit and non-profit providers, with government subsidies from federal, state, and local sources helping low-income families afford spots.

Read more at chalkbeat.org.

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