The Calhan School District school serves upward of 400 preschool to 12th grade students. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

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When Colorado launches free preschool for 4-year-olds in 2023, it will join a half dozen other states that already offer universal preschool.

All of them have encountered the same tricky task Colorado leaders now face as they try to knit together a disparate patchwork of public and private preschools into an equitable and high-quality statewide system. We’ll take a look at some of the lessons learned in four states: Florida, Oklahoma, Vermont, and Wisconsin. 

Some, like Oklahoma, have offered the program for decades, while others, like Vermont — one of the few places to offer free preschool to all 3- and 4-year-olds — have joined the club more recently. Wisconsin officials said they don’t consider their preschool program universal because school districts don’t have to offer the state-funded classes, though 99% do. 

Colorado’s universal preschool program will offer 10 hours a week to all 4-year-olds, with children who have higher needs eligible for more. Funding will come from Colorado’s existing state-funded preschool program, which is for children from low-income families, or who have language delays, or other risk factors, and proceeds from a voter-approved nicotine tax

Advocates in the four states cited ongoing challenges in everything from ensuring high-quality offerings to making part-day preschool work for families, but they also said the programs are generally popular. In all four states, at least 70% of 4-year-olds participated prior to the pandemic.

Sherry Carlson, chief program officer at the Vermont advocacy group, Let’s Grow Kids, said the state’s system is not perfect, but “usage is an indication that we’re on the right track.”