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Preschoolers read books in their classroom at Shawsheen Elementary in Greeley on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019. (Valerie Mosley, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis this week defended recent cuts to hiring requirements for preschool teachers, rejecting criticism from advocates who fear they could erode the quality of a preschool education just as the state prepares to roll out a major expansion.

Polis argued that rather than lowering the bar for early childhood educators, the new credentialing standards provide novice teachers the kind of training received by their peers preparing to teach in K-12 classrooms.

“This is just one small piece of it, but what we hope that what this does is provide something that’s a lot closer to the K-12 model, where a teacher in training, an early childhood professional in training, under the supervision of a licensed professional … ahead of their license, they get that class time and experience that makes them a better teacher.”

But unlike student-teacher programs in Colorado’s public schools, nothing in the new standards requires that newly licensed preschool teachers be paired with veterans. 

A new scoring system, approved last month, requires fewer qualifications to become a teacher and reduces the level of training, education and experience required to lead a classroom, program documents show.

For instance, someone who has taken one early childhood education course at a community college, completed 20-21 hours of professional development through online training offered by the state and passed a background check could receive an early childhood professional credential and be cleared to teach.

“So they would be able to be alone in the classroom,” said Dawn Alexander, executive director of the Early Childhood Education Association of Colorado. 

Preschooler Aidan Quintana Huynh paints Friday, July 30, 2021, during a morning class at Early Connections Learning Center in Colorado Springs. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The credentialing process scores candidates in four categories: formal education, ongoing professional development, experience and demonstrated competencies. 

Under the old system, candidates needed enough points in at least three categories to be certified. The change approved last month requires fewer points from just two categories.

As the state implements the changes, it’s relying on providers to support new teachers with ongoing training, helping them develop their skills to become better educators.

“If they’re not supported well, they’re going to walk out at lunch and not come back,” Alexander said, noting that she frequently hears anecdotes of new teachers abruptly exiting the field.

The governor’s assurances come as critics complain the change could undermine the quality of early childhood education as the state makes preschool available starting in fall 2023. 

The debate is playing out as Colorado faces pressing deadlines in the rollout of universal preschool — which will provide at least 10 free hours of preschool to all kids the year before kindergarten — and while statewide labor shortages roil education, health care and private industry. 

State officials are well aware of workforce shortages wreaking havoc on child care providers, Polis said, which is why they began planning as soon as voters approved Proposition EE in 2020. The ballot measure raised taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco and nicotine products to fund universal preschool. He also pointed out a $7.2 million measure passed during the last legislative session that includes scholarships and other financial incentives to help recruit and retain early childhood educators.

It’s not yet clear exactly how many teachers Colorado will need to stand up universal preschool, in large part because the state doesn’t know how many children will enroll. Colorado will have about 63,200 4-year-olds in 2023, state demographer Elizabeth Garner said.

The program will likely draw 60%-70% of eligible students at the outset, said Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood and policy initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign, who noted that even states with longstanding universal preschool programs don’t have 100% of their kids participating.

In 2019, before the pandemic, Colorado had 23,702 early childhood education professionals, according to a data dashboard posted on the Office of Early Childhood’s website. Last year, that number shrunk to between 20,000 and 22,000 people.

Preschoolers Laylamarie Larson, left, and Kinley Palmer play together during a morning class at Early Connections Learning Center in Colorado Springs on Friday, July 30, 2021. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Not all of those workers are qualified to lead preschool classrooms, and worker shortages vary from place to place. 

“The picture probably gets more nuanced as you zoom in on where those educators are located and the qualifications of those members of the early childhood workforce to serve as lead teachers,” Jaeger said.

But the state’s current cadre of early childhood educators “is an encouraging place to start,” he said.

Polis’ goals around workforce numbers in early childhood education have fluctuated over the past few years as the pandemic has influenced preschool enrollment. Last year, he set out to build up a workforce of 22,070 staffers. This year, the goal is a workforce of 21,341 by the end of June.

Those goals reflect enrollment that declined during the pandemic, he said. However, preschool enrollment increased this year by 4,478 students, a nearly 17% jump over enrollment last year.

“There are parents who are just taking additional precautions with their kids right now,” Polis said. “We do expect that as the vaccine becomes available, as the pandemic ebbs, that we would return to more normal enrollment patterns, which also means the need for more professionals … in that space than we have right now.”

State officials plan to make universal preschool available in a variety of settings, including licensed in-home providers. Polis anticipates that school districts will take on the majority of programming, but the hope is that families in different parts of the state will be able to choose from different kinds of providers.

“I have a high degree of confidence that preschool will be available universally,” Polis said. “In most areas we expect parents to be able to have a good choice of different providers. Now, that might not be a reality in some areas of rural Colorado, where the only provider might be the school district. But across many areas, most areas of Colorado, we expect there to be a number of high quality choices that parents can make for their kids.”

Polis said Proposition EE will help communities hire teachers and make other preparations to welcome kids to universal preschool.

“It provides a stable revenue stream, which can be used for salaries for preschool teachers,” he said. “That kind of stability is what allows districts across our state to make sure that they’re able to meet their needs. When you don’t have stable funding, it’s a lot harder to attract people and retain people.”

“A matter of months” to assemble a workforce

Not all child care providers across the state intend to participate in universal preschool, according to a report published this month by Early Milestones Colorado, a Denver-based nonprofit focused on improving policies for early childhood development and making sure kids have access to resources that will set them up for success.

That’s created some uncertainty around whether Colorado will have enough providers and capacity to get universal preschool off the ground in fall 2023.

“I think that we really have to be vigilant about that, and the pandemic has made that question a bigger concern and a really big wild card,” said Jennifer Stedron, executive director of Early Milestones Colorado.

Her organization compiled the report from surveys conducted early last year. The surveys aimed to understand how the pandemic impacted providers, the workforce and families. Responses came from 1,450 child care providers, and a subset of those providers answered questions about universal preschool.

Sixty-five percent of those providers indicated they are likely to participate in universal preschool, including just about all licensed preschools. Interest in the program varied more among center-based providers and family child care home providers.

Preschool teacher Tricia Stolinas works on Friday, July 30, 2021, with student Arianna Rodriguez at Early Connections Learning Center in Colorado Springs. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Thirty-one percent of center-based providers and 45% of home child care providers said they do not plan to take part in universal preschool, citing too many rules and requirements to follow, too much paperwork and inadequate payment.

Stedron emphasized the need to keep tabs on what providers are still in business, whether they have enough educators on staff and how they react to details of universal preschool as the state clarifies how the program will operate. It’s equally important, she said, to be “very targeted in looking at local demand and supply gaps.”

Currently, those gaps are especially glaring in Larimer, Weld and Morgan counties, where 40% of providers stated they were either unlikely or very unlikely to participate in universal preschool. The six-county Denver metro area is another region of concern, with 39% of providers saying it was either unlikely or very unlikely they would want to participate.

Struggles to hire and retain early childhood educators are also driving worries around the state’s ability to successfully expand preschool next year.

Seventy percent of providers who responded to Early Milestones Colorado’s survey indicated they have had a hard time finding enough teachers or caregivers to enroll as many students as they have the capacity to serve.

“We know we’ve had staffing shortages for years and years in Colorado, and this pandemic has made it worse,” Stedron said.

She acknowledged that the report captures data from one point in time and that circumstances and realities are fluid as the state prepares for universal preschool. But the window of time to build up a bigger workforce is closing quickly, Stedron added, with “a matter of months to find the workforce to roll this out.”

Programs taking on universal preschool must find and hire adults interested in becoming early childhood educators and ensure they receive enough training and preparation to care for and educate kids, Stedron said.

“And we have to ensure that all that occurs in the areas where demand is highest,” she said. “That’s quite a bit to do in the middle of a pandemic.”