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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)

A nearly 500-page bill released Friday fills in new details about the Department of Early Childhood as it launches and prepares to oversee Colorado’s expansion of preschool in fall 2023. 

The Democrat-backed bill reflects close to a year of planning among lawmakers, state agencies, the governor’s office, early childhood providers and advocates, and parents — who weighed in on the design of the new department and preschool programming through town halls across the state.

The focus, proponents say, is to centralize services and make it easier for parents to obtain help for their children, including signing up for at least 10 hours of free preschool per week when the program is launched.

“Rather than have different agencies with different paperwork and different burdens on parents, it’s to make this as simple as possible for parents and to really make sure that we can blend all the different funding streams including the really robust universal preschool funding stream that the voters approved,” Gov. Jared Polis told The Colorado Sun on Thursday.

But the state still doesn’t have a clear idea of whether every community will have enough educators to provide preschool to all eligible students in fall 2023. And early childhood education providers question whether the new teachers they bring into the classroom will be qualified.

Colorado currently has 20,325 early childhood educators, according to Melissa Dworkin, a spokeswoman for Polis. That’s down from the 23,702 early childhood education professionals the state had in 2019, according to a data dashboard posted on the Office of Early Childhood’s website.

Preschool teacher A.J. Hagn works with preschooler Isaiah Davenport on Friday, July 30, 2021, at Early Connections Learning Centers in Colorado Springs. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

It’s unclear how many families will choose to enroll in the state’s universal preschool program, which will offer at least 10 hours of free preschool per week to kids the year before they enter kindergarten through a variety of preschool providers, including in school district-based settings and in private facilities, state officials say.

The governor’s office did not respond to questions about how many kids it projects will opt into universal preschool in fall 2023 and how many early childhood educators it estimates the state will need for preschoolers.

Colorado will have about 63,200 4-year-olds in 2023, according to state demographer Elizabeth Garner.

Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood and policy initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign, predicts that universal preschool will likely draw 60% to 70% of eligible students in its first year. Other established universal preschool programs across the country don’t have 100% participation among kids who qualify, he said.

The governor’s office and lawmakers anticipate a “ramp up” of the expanded preschool program, with more families enrolling in free preschool in coming years.

Polis told The Colorado Sun on Thursday that he expects “the program will build over time,” adding, “we’re going to learn a lot in the first year and years about demand and how best we can serve that across the state.”

Low wages for early childhood educators have been one hurdle to drawing more teachers into preschool classrooms. Entry-level lead teachers in the Denver metro area can make as little as $15.87 an hour, according to job postings on Proposition EE, in which voters approved tax increases on cigarettes and other tobacco products and most of that revenue going toward funding free preschool, is opening up a way for providers to pay their teachers more, Polis said.

“The opportunity for preschool teachers to earn … a living wage rather than a very low hourly wage will absolutely help recruitment and retention of early childhood professionals,” he said.

Additionally, the state lowered credentialing standards for early childhood educators in December. That has raised concerns among some providers about the possibility of the quality of classroom programs taking a hit.

Preschool teacher Sarah Penick reads a book to preschoolers on Friday, July 30, 2021, at Early Connections Learning Centers in Colorado Springs. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Polis has defended the decision to lower the bar on standards, insisting that the state’s new approach to hiring preschool teachers will offer them the kind of student-teacher opportunities that K-12 teacher candidates already get. However, unlike student-teacher programs across public schools, nothing in the new standards spells out that newly licensed preschool teachers must teach alongside veteran educators.

Preschools are still struggling to add more early childhood educators to their staff rosters, said Dawn Alexander, executive director of the Early Childhood Education Association of Colorado. 

“They’re trying to find whoever they can find,” Alexander said.

Jaeger, of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, is optimistic that the state will “be in good shape overall,” though the outlook may not be as rosy for some communities.

“We are going to have communities that are going to have a longer glidepath to meeting the needs of all of their children, but I think most communities are going to be well positioned to meet the opportunity of serving far more 4-year-olds in preschool,” Jaeger said.

The pandemic has created “a wrinkle” in trying to keep track of the capacity of every community as disruptions to early child care and recovery processes have played out differently, he added.

How will the new department be structured?

The state’s push to provide more preschool to more children has been a key priority for Polis. The expansion of Colorado preschool was made possible after Proposition EE passed in November 2020.

Under the state’s universal preschool program — which is voluntary for families — every child will receive at least 10 hours a week of free preschool the year before entering kindergarten starting in fall 2023. Children from low-income households will be able to attend preschool for additional hours each week. 

Some opponents have raised concerns about the speed at which state officials are moving forward to expand preschool for families, but Polis is adamant that the state must uphold its promise to voters to introduce universal preschool next year after they approved Proposition EE.

“Secondly,” Polis said, “your kid is only a preschooler once, and so any delay would cost kids the opportunity to go to preschool in our state.”

Preschool teacher Sarah Penick stretches with her preschool students on Friday, July 30, 2021, at Early Connections Learning Centers in Colorado Springs. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Last year, Colorado lawmakers passed a measure that established a process for developing the new department and preparing for the expansion of preschool. On March 1, Polis signed into law another bill that sped up the creation of the Department of Early Childhood from the state’s original plan to launch it in July. This clears the way for the state to hire an executive director and fill other leadership positions as well as put $3.5 million toward data system capital construction costs and give $326,413 to the department to be used by the executive director’s office.

The legislation introduced on Friday would formalize how the new department will operate and guide the state’s new preschool program. The legislation paves the way for the Colorado Office of Early Childhood to move from the Colorado Department of Human Services into the new department and sets up rulemaking processes around the quality and financial components of the preschool program. 

More than a dozen programs pertaining to early childhood are transitioning from the Department of Human Services into the new department, including early childhood councils, family resource centers, the Colorado nurse home visitor program and emergency relief grant programs. Additionally, the new department will inherit the Colorado Department of Education’s responsibilities related to early childhood workforce development. It will also take over the education department’s authority to run a statewide preschool program.

The legislation would balance oversight of universal preschool between state and local authorities by creating an application process for “local coordinating organizations” in individual communities. Those organizations will support families, program and service providers and local governments while managing funding for local preschool programs.

The state department is “our backstop of our structure and the local coordinating organizations are really there to help deliver what is needed on the ground and what is unique to everyone’s community,” said Rep. Emily Sirota, a Denver Democrat and prime sponsor.

The legislation would also establish one application for families who want to enroll their children in universal preschool in fall 2023, part of lawmakers’ hopes to simplify the process so that more kids can get a headstart on their education before kindergarten.

“We know obviously that parents have a lot going on,” said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat and prime sponsor. “And so it’s important that when they’re navigating the process of early childhood education, that they have a simple process to follow and that it’s predictable.”

Sen. Janet Buckner, an Aurora Democrat and bill sponsor, said the law would save families an average of $4,300 a year.

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...