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Kalvin Newbanks and Alaric Lower read books in their preschool classroom at Shawsheen Elementary in Greeley on Thursday, December 12, 2019. (Valerie Mosley/Special to the Colorado Sun)

By fall 2023, thousands more Colorado 4-year-olds could be gathering in preschool classrooms for a few hours each week to practice their letters and listen to storytime in preparation for kindergarten.

It’s a vision that state leaders — namely Gov. Jared Polis — and early childhood advocates have been chasing for decades. They might finally reach their goal of universal preschool depending on the outcome of a ballot measure in November. 

That measure, a result of House Bill 1427, will ask voters to significantly raise taxes on cigarettes and start taxing other products that contain nicotine, including vaping devices and their fuel. It will simply need a majority vote to pass.

Rep. Julie McCluskie, a Dillon Democrat and bill sponsor, said lawmakers anticipate those taxes would generate between $400 million and $500 million in the first three years, during which time the money would flow into the state’s education fund, with an emphasis on rural schools. A portion of the tax revenue also would support the general fund, affordable housing and legal assistance for people facing eviction.

By the fourth year, once K-12 schools are potentially on more solid financial footing, about $168 million would be directed to pay for the start of a universal preschool program.

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

Colorado has a sizable gap between the number of kids eligible to enroll in free preschool and the total number actually enrolled.

In December, about 76,000 3- and 4-year-olds were eligible to enroll in free preschool through the Colorado Preschool Program, some of whom may also have been eligible for federally-funded Head Start. But only 27,530 kids were enrolled in free preschool, with some of them also likely enrolled in Head Start. School districts simply don’t have the physical classroom space to serve all students who qualify.

Currently, there are about 68,000 4-year-olds in the state, said Conor Cahill, spokesman for Polis.

“In a moment where there’s a lot to be worried about, we think this is something to be profoundly excited about, the opportunity to expand the quality and the quantity of education to Colorado’s kids by establishing universal preschool,” said Mike Johnston, president and CEO of Gary Community Investments and a former state senator.

Gary Community was involved in the steering committee behind a similar ballot measure, Initiative 292, which would have raised the tax on a pack of cigarettes to 62% and started taxing all other nicotine products at the same rate overnight. 

The initiative was set aside in favor of a deal with tobacco interests, health organizations, Polis and state lawmakers that resulted in House Bill 1427, which still raises taxes on cigarettes and other nicotine products to 62% but gradually and over a number of years. Johnston said his organization was part of the talks that led to the measure.

Ava Golian plays with a dollhouse in her preschool classroom at Shawsheen Elementary in Greeley on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019. (Valerie Mosley/Special to the Colorado Sun)

The bill, introduced last week and passed on Monday, asks voters to approve a gradual increase taxes on products such as cigarettes and chew and introduce a new tax on vaping devices and fuel. A pack of cigarettes taxed today at 84 cents would be taxed $2.64 in July 2027.

About $168 million in tax revenue plus state funds currently designated for the Colorado Preschool Program is projected to pave the way for a universal preschool program starting in 2023, said Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood and policy initiatives at the nonprofit Colorado Children’s Campaign, which worked on the legislation. Jaeger estimates total funding for the universal preschool program at $263 million. Tax revenue will ramp up to about $222 million to accommodate growth in the program in fiscal year 2030-31.

Through the program, every 4-year-old would have access to 10 hours of free preschool each week. About half of the funding would go toward developing a sliding scale program that would offer additional hours to the children most at risk of entering kindergarten unprepared, Johnston said. Students with the most severe needs might have 30 hours of classroom time each week. 

Local providers could build a model that provides the most resources to the students with the greatest needs, he said.

All kinds of providers would be involved in universal preschool, including community providers with private programs and those that belong to public school districts.

The program and additional funds will expand and improve upon the current state preschool program, which was funded with $124 million in the 2019-20 fiscal year, Jaeger said. An estimated $89 million of that amount served children who were attending kindergarten the next year, he said.

“Adding this new revenue on top of our existing program allocation will allow for an expansion to all children the year prior to kindergarten entry and additional preschool program for children in families with low incomes or who face barriers to school readiness,” he said.

Should the ballot measure pass, legislators would hammer out details of the program over the next three years, McCluskie said.

“It gives us the time to really design a statewide preschool program that best serves everyone and best serves the diversity of our communities,” McCluskie said. “Parents need to be able to choose the preschool setting for their child that fits their values, that fits their learning objectives.”

She’s also hopeful that lawmakers would choose to outfit the state program with an element that has been key to the program operating in her home community of Summit County. There, a family can qualify for a certain amount of tuition assistance based on income. If they choose a provider that has a high quality rating, they’re eligible to receive additional dollars. That kind of system encourages providers to invest in quality facilities and trained and certified staff so that they are more likely to be a choice for families, McCluskie said.

A “tool” to prepare kids for school

Polis has been among the most vocal proponents of expanding early childhood education in Colorado.

The governor succeeded during the 2019 legislative session in his push to fund free full-day kindergarten for Colorado public school. At the start of the 2020 legislative session, he set out to expand the number of preschool slots available to children.

“Years of scientific research, as well as the real-life experiences of parents, validate the importance of the early formative years of a child’s life,” Polis said in a written statement. “High-quality preschool has a strong return on investment, leads to a better-prepared workforce, saves parents money, and helps prevent achievement gaps before they start. Investing in early childhood education is a smart, responsible move for our state that makes our state more affordable for families today and more competitive for our future.”

Octavio Vazquez, Cameron Beina and Tucker Anderson play with a mailbox for letters to Santa at Shawsheen Elementary on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019. (Valerie Mosley/Special to the Colorado Sun)

Christina Walker, director of policy and advocacy at Clayton Early Learning in Denver, is encouraged by the prospect of Colorado adopting universal preschool.

“It’s a great step forward in being able to set the stage for additional resources being able to go toward early childhood education,” she said.

Walker, who was part of conversations about House Bill 1427, has seen universal preschool play out firsthand. She worked for District of Columbia Public Schools during 2011-13 as it was pushing out preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds in all Title I schools, a designation for schools where 75% or more students come from low-income households.

She endorses the idea of starting early childhood education before preschool. But she also believes that this latest preschool initiative will be considered a way to close the equity gap in the state’s K-12 education system.

Walker said childhood education, including preschool, is “one of the best tools that we have in order to get kids ready for school.”

Children start to develop skills in preschool that set a foundation for kindergarten, including social-emotional skills, the ability to follow directions, the willingness to share with other children and the capacity to connect with a caregiver.

“All of those things are vitally important to the way we grow up and how we become full adults with rich lives,” Walker said.

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...