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

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Jennifer Piper, a longtime home-based child care provider in Loveland, is brimming with questions about how Colorado’s new universal preschool program will work when it launches next fall.

She recently sent a bulleted list of 14 questions to local officials, including basic ones about teacher qualification and curriculum requirements. 

The state needs to win over providers like Piper to meet its ambitious goal of quickly building a preschool program capable of serving every 4-year-old in the state as well as some 3-year-olds. 

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And there are early signs that they are ready to sign on. More than 250 preschool providers, offering a total of 12,000 seats, have signed up for the universal program so far, according to state officials.

Colorado’s universal preschool program is one of Gov. Jared Polis’ signature priorities and represents a major expansion of tuition-free preschool in the state. The $335 million program is slated to serve 30,000 4-year-olds next year and even more in future years, according to state estimates. It will replace a smaller state-funded preschool program that currently serves about 19,000 children from low-income families or who have other risk factors. 

In addition to serving more children, the new universal program will provide more class time to most students and, in most cases, pay preschool providers a higher per-pupil rate than the current program does. The state’s early childhood department, which was created less than a year ago, will run the universal program, with early childhood councils or other groups administering it locally

For many early childhood leaders and advocates, recent rapid-fire decisions on the new program have prompted excitement and hope that more Colorado children will benefit from high-quality preschool. When the preschool application opens for families on Jan. 17, officials hope to offer a variety of placement options — in schools, churches, child care centers, and state-licensed homes.

But some key questions remain, including what quality standards universal preschool providers will have to meet. Those rules won’t be out until spring.

Read more at chalkbeat.org.

Ann Schimke, Chalkbeat Colorado

Senior reporter — Chalkbeat Colorado. Email: aschimke@chalkbeat.org Twitter: @annschimke