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Teacher Hannah Halferty leads her preschoolers in an activity at Shawsheen Elementary in Greeley on Thursday, December 12, 2019. (Valerie Mosley, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Gov. Jared Polis and Democratic state lawmakers on Wednesday unveiled a bill to create a dedicated early childhood education department that would house Colorado’s new universal preschool program and bring existing initiatives and funding streams from different agencies under one roof.

“For years, we have heard from our families and our providers and they have told us that navigating our fragmented early childhood system is just too hard,” state Rep. Emily Sirota, a Denver Democrat, said during a news conference at the state Capitol. “I am proud to say that today we are delivering a solution.”

Currently, different state agencies — like the Colorado Department of Education, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and Colorado Department of Human Services — serve young children and their families. Sirota said the goal is to get to a point “where families can have one point of access” through a cabinet-level agency reporting directly to the governor. 

The department would be established by July 2022 under the measure, which has yet to be introduced. Sirota said that the bill is largely framed around planning for the launch of the department and the integration of early childhood programs and funding sources. The Joint Budget Committee has set aside $1 million from the state’s general fund to support the planning process to transition programs and funding sources to a centralized agency, Sirota said. She added that part of the transition planning process will involve figuring out how much money will be needed to stand up the new department and where dollars will come from.

Polis will be able to take the proposal that emerges from the planning process to incorporate into his budget request, she noted.

The announcement comes after voters passed Proposition EE in November, which raises taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products. The majority of the new revenue will be directed toward paying for free preschool for Colorado kids starting in 2023, accomplishing a major 2020 Polis campaign promise.

Colorado currently provides a limited number of free preschool slots to families. Polis and Democratic state lawmakers believe Prop. EE will generate enough money to make free preschool universal starting in 2023.

House Speaker Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, emphasized on Wednesday how critical it is to support Colorado kids in their earliest years. 

“This is the time where we need to be investing in them more than ever,” he said during Wednesday’s news conference. “We know how critical this is for Colorado families, for Colorado’s economy, for the future of our state.”

Garnett said that early childhood advocates have been asking for a designated department for years. “We’re finally here to deliver on that ask,” he said, adding that he believes Colorado’s new approach could serve as a template for other states.

Diane Price, president and CEO of Early Connections Learning Centers in Colorado Springs and a 32-year veteran of the early care in education industry, is among the early child care and early education providers who see a need for a more uniform approach to serving Colorado’s youngest students.

Price said it’s challenging enough for families to navigate child care and early childhood learning in light of the fragmented system. That’s not to mention the hoops providers must jump through.

“This is our chance to begin this transition,” Price said in an interview with The Colorado Sun. “This legislation allows us to bring people to the table to have conversations about the impact on children and families.”

George Davis knows firsthand the frustration of trying to secure learning and care opportunities for his daughter, who is now 4 and attends Clayton Early Learning in Denver. Davis recalls having to be the liaison between different facilities or departments when he was trying to figure out options for his daughter, citing poor communication among them.

As a busy parent trying to juggle caring for his kids and his home on top of all his other responsibilities, he pointed to the need for one central department for early childhood education — “a one-stop shop” — and the potential for it to save parents both time and money.

“Parents right now have it hard enough without having the extra added on of not having the convenience,” Davis said.

Price also sees the state’s commitment to creating a new department as an indication of how important early education is to families and Colorado as a whole.

She urges lawmakers to “take advantage of this opportunity.”

“We have this chance to really be supportive of our children and our families,” Price said, “and advance a system based on birth to 5 that really allows children and families to be successful.”

Jesse Paul

The Colorado Sun — Desk: 720-432-2229 Jesse Paul is a political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is...

Erica Breunlin

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