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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)

Only a sliver of 4-year-olds in Colorado attend preschool — a critical early step for a child’s school readiness, educators and advocates say — but that could change by 2023 should voters approve a ballot measure in November that would seek to expand the state’s preschool program.

Proposition EE would increase the tax on cigarettes and all other nicotine and tobacco products incrementally over the next seven years, providing funding for a universal preschool program that would also target resources toward families whose children would benefit most.

That kind of program would position Colorado as a pioneer in early childhood education, advocates argue. Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood and policy initiatives at the nonprofit Colorado Children’s Campaign, isn’t aware of another state with a preschool program that is both accessible to all and prioritizes kids who face the most significant barriers to opportunity. 

Jaeger considers preschool an essential prelude to elementary school. “We know from decades of research that the experiences children have in the earliest years of life lay the foundation for what is to come,” he said.

Proposition EE explained: How much more cigarettes, nicotine products would cost in Colorado

The passage of Proposition EE also would advance a core goal of Democratic Gov. Jared Polis, who made the expansion of preschool education in Colorado a cornerstone of his first-term agenda.

In his 2018 campaign for governor, he promised free and universal pre-kindergarten education in “every community across our state within two years.”

In his first State of the State address, he doubled down on his pledge but shifted the goalposts, no longer promising preschool would be free and saying he wants to make it happen by the end of his first term in 2022.

Sam Raboin is one of the behavioral health specialists hired by Early Connections Learning Centers in Colorado Springs. She read a book to Gabriella Gabbin in her class at the center’s historic downtown building on Monday, Feb. 10, 2020. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

He won’t be able to keep his original pledge on the timeline he established, but if the ballot initiative is successful, it would help him meet his broader goal. He is campaigning for the measures and an affiliated nonprofit is a big donor to the campaign. In a statement, Polis said the proposition “means the opportunity to attend preschool for thousands of Colorado children who otherwise wouldn’t get it.”

Opponents of Proposition EE criticize its language, pointing out that nothing guarantees the Colorado legislature will direct the funds generated by the tax starting in 2023-24 fiscal year to preschool. Instead, the money generated in the first three years, and even a portion in the future, will go into the state’s discretionary spending account, known as the general fund. Michelle Lyng, spokesperson for “A Bad Deal for Colorado,” an organization against the measure backed by tobacco company, noted that “how these funds are allocated and distributed is entirely at the discretion of the legislature.”

Lyng also finds fault in the ballot measure’s lack of specifics when it comes to funding a universal preschool program, questioning who would qualify for the funds, how they would be distributed and what would happen in cities like Denver that already have a preschool tax.

“The proponents of EE are asking voters to award taxpayer dollars for a preschool plan that doesn’t exist — there is no plan,” she said. “In other words, we have to pass it to find out what’s in it.”

Lyng said she values providing educational opportunity, especially for those who are vulnerable, but she questioned the waiting game Colorado families would have to play with funding for a preschool expansion put on hold for at least two-and-a-half years.

She also doesn’t see this November as the right time to ask Coloradans, especially those who are low income, to pay higher taxes on tobacco and nicotine products.

“This is a $294 million tax increase on Coloradans just as we’re trying to recover from COVID,” Lyng said. “If the concern is cessation, more of the funds should go to cessation efforts, instead of the legislature’s general fund to be spent on unrelated projects.”

A fear of inequity “at the starting line” for childhood education

More than 67,000 4-year-olds call Colorado home, but a fraction of them are enrolled in preschool. About 15,700 4 year olds have access to a half-day or full-day slot through the Colorado Preschool Program. Most of them have access to a half-day slot. An additional 7,000 low-income 4-year-old children are currently accessing preschool through a combination of funding from Head Start and the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program, Jaeger said. Some of those children may also have a slot through the Colorado Preschool Program.

Each year, the legislature decides how many slots it will fund for the Colorado Preschool Program, but there are only so many dollars to go around for preschool and K-12 education.

“With all of the pressures on the state budget to fund K-12 education in general, it is very difficult to increase the state’s investments in preschool,” Jaeger said. “Even though we know it would probably save us money in the long run, we have so underresourced the rest of the system that we’re caught in the cycle of not being able to fund prevention because we have so many unpaid dues for downstream costs.”

With Proposition EE, he added, Colorado could develop a dedicated revenue stream that would allow the state to skirt the pressure of trying to fund K-12 education and preschool at the same time.

In its first six months, Proposition EE would likely generate an additional $176 million in tax revenue in its first full year. That figure would increase gradually to $276 million in tax revenue by fiscal year 2027-28 when the tax increases are fully enacted.

But before expanding preschool, dollars would flow to the general fund and other initiatives, such as rural schools and housing development.

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)

Nine states fund preschool through their K-12 funding formula, according to the Education Commission of the States. All of them either operate a universal program with equal services for all kids or they offer a targeted program that invests in a subset of children, Jaeger said. The Colorado Preschool Program is targeted, supporting 29,360 half-day preschool slots, which translates to about 27,530 kids from birth through 5 years old benefiting from the program. Participating children have to meet certain risk factors, such as coming from a low-income family or experiencing abuse and neglect. Another 9,000 have access through federal programs. But Colorado’s program serves only 40% of eligible 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds, so even if children qualify for a spot there’s no guarantee that they’ll receive one.

As it’s written, funding from Proposition EE would ensure all Colorado children have access to 10 hours of preschool each week during the year prior to entering kindergarten. Any extra revenue would provide additional hours of preschool to children who are from low-income households or who are potentially behind in their school readiness, Jaeger said.

If the state can build programming out of the funds that are designated for families who may struggle to make ends meet, that would support their economic mobility and enable them to more easily participate in the workforce, he said.

Jaeger noted that evidence suggests all children gain ground from participating in preschool. For instance, children who have access to high-quality preschool are less likely to be held back, less likely to have a significant reading deficiency, less likely to have a learning need that would identify them as special needs, more likely to perform well on state standards-based assessments and more likely to graduate high school.

Investments in prevention lead to a much larger return than investments in remediation, Jaeger said, adding, “it makes sense for the child, and it makes sense for our public investment in schools.”

Early Connections Learning Centers President and CEO Diane Price in the dining room at the organization’s nearly 100-year-old building in Colorado Springs on Monday, Feb. 10, 2020. It’s the oldest nonprofit child care organization in Colorado. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Diane Price, president and CEO of Colorado Springs-based Early Connections Learning Centers, cited the “huge transition” that kids make between preschool and kindergarten. The year before kindergarten allows children and parents to engage in early learning and address the full scope of children’s needs, including their health, social-emotional needs and cognitive needs.

More than anything, families want their child to be successful in school but often struggle with accessing what they need to make that happen in their communities, said Price, a proponent of Proposition EE.

“This gives us access across our state in all our communities to be very collaborative in supporting families as children transition to school,” she said.

Jaeger finds it “shameful” that across the state and country, families with means get their children access to high-quality preschool while families who struggle lack the same equitable access to opportunity.

Nationally, families whose income falls into the bottom 40% have about a 65% chance of getting enrolled in preschool. Enrollment for the wealthiest 20% of families exceeds 90%, Jaeger said.

If many Colorado kids continue to miss out on preschool, he worries that the state “will reinforce inequity at the starting line.”

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Another consequence: the state’s K-12 system will continue facing pressure to catch kids up, which amounts to a more expensive approach, Jaeger said.

Neither Price nor Jaeger are deterred by the prospect of having to wait until 2023 for an expanded preschool program.

Jaeger said that while advocates like him are eager to see that investment play out as soon as possible, they also recognize how much the pandemic has damaged the state budget and the need to more immediately fund K-12 schools, particularly rural schools, and other reinforcements to families’ wellbeing.

He’s looking ahead to fall 2023 as the potential start of a preschool approach that will be the first of its kind in the country. And he believes that an economic recovery is dependent upon getting families back to work and children back on track with their education. “Preschool allows both to happen,” Jaeger said.

Supporters of the ballot measure are not deterred by the contradictory concept of the measure — the idea that higher taxes are a deterrent to use tobacco and nicotine and if successful may not produce enough money to fund a growing preschool program in the future.

But Lyng worries about the cost upfront to families suffering from economic hardship. Proposition EE would impact about 14% of Colorado residents, about 80% of whom earn less than $40,000 per year, she said.

“If we are truly committed to providing universal preschool, why is it the responsibility of just approximately 14% of the population to provide?” Lyng said.

Staff writer John Frank contributed to this report.

CORRECTION: This file was updated at 1:06 p.m. on Oct. 5, 2020, to correct the number of 4 year olds attending preschool in Colorado. About 67,000 4 year olds live in Colorado, and about 15,700 4 year olds have access to a half-day or full-day slot of preschool through the Colorado Preschool Program. Most of those children have access to a half-day slot. An additional 7,000 4-year-old children attend preschool through a combination of funding from Head Start and the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program. Some of those children may also have a slot through the Colorado Preschool Program. About 27,530 kids from birth through 5 years old benefit from the program.

Erica Breunlin

Email: Twitter: @EricaBreunlin