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Chrissy Simmons, the director of a child care center in the western Colorado city of Montrose, was one of the presenters talking about career paths at a local high school this spring.
Students were visibly excited when speakers discussed potential earnings for jobs in welding and health care — wages of $20, $30, even $50 an hour. There were “oohs and aahs,” she recalled.
But when Simmons talked about what early childhood teachers make, the classroom was still.
“Just no sounds, just silence,” she said.
That non-reaction may sum up the challenge as Colorado prepares for a major expansion of state-funded preschool. The expansion’s success hinges on the willingness of thousands of teachers and aides to commit to a notoriously low-paying field already plagued by staff shortages. State leaders in charge of the effort have promised that the universal preschool workforce will earn a living wage — a tantalizing pledge, but also hard to imagine in a state where the median preschool teacher wage is around $15.25 an hour.
The state’s new preschool program, funded partly with a voter-approved nicotine tax, will offer 10 hours a week of tuition-free preschool to 4-year-olds starting in the fall of 2023. Children with the greatest needs will be eligible for more and families will be able to choose preschool classrooms inside schools, churches, child care centers, or licensed homes.
Many preschool providers and early childhood advocates say they’re excited about the prospect of a system of high-quality preschool that pays providers fairly and equitably. At the same time, some worry that lead time is running short, unanswered questions are piling up, and there won’t be enough money to realize the program’s lofty goals.
“It’s very hush-hush. Nothing’s even been hinted at how that’s going to work,” said Deb Hartman, the director of a Trinidad child care center managed by the South Central Council of Governments.