Lawmakers on Wednesday raked leaders from the Colorado Department of Early Childhood for what they and preschool providers see as serious shortcomings in the delivery of Gov. Jared Polis’ signature promise to provide preschool to all Colorado kids in the year before kindergarten.
In a Joint Budget Committee hearing that turned heated at times, committee members including State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada, and state Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, R-Brighton, piled onto criticisms of the department and its rollout of the state’s newly expanded preschool program, known as universal preschool.
They interrogated Lisa Roy, executive director of the department, and Dawn Odean, program director of universal preschool, about the same issues that prompted a group of Colorado school districts and education organizations to sue Polis and state education agencies last month.
Committee members grilled Roy and Odean about how they are addressing problems with preschool enrollment and a system for matching families to available programs that has made it hard for districts to assign kids to preschools. They also banged on the state department for a last-minute change to which kids, and how many, qualify for more than 15 hours per week and echoed providers’ concerns about whether the state has set up schools and providers to adequately serve children with disabilities.
“Who are you hearing from that is telling you these issues are resolved?” Kirkmeyer asked department leaders. “Because I have not heard from one person, one school district that has said these issues are resolved.”
Roy and Odean acknowledged that the implementation of universal preschool, which is now serving 38,219 4-year-olds, has not been perfect but said they’re working on fixes, though they didn’t offer many specifics.
“We have had some challenges, and I can’t stress enough that we have been working really hard,” Roy said at the end of the hearing. “It is helpful to hear en masse what some of those issues are so that we can strategically address those from a systemic perspective.”
Thinking today about how the programs will run next fall
Not only is the department scrambling to solve preschool problems right now, but they also have to begin thinking about how the program will run next year as school districts and providers begin marketing to families this fall.
The urgency around planning for next year alarmed Kirkmeyer, who was visibly angry throughout the hearing and questioned how the department can turn its focus to next year when program challenges continue to overwhelm providers and school districts this year.
She demanded that the department immediately address snags with its enrollment and matching system, BridgeCare, after districts and providers approached her and other lawmakers with concerns.
They don’t feel the department is listening to them and responding to their concerns, Kirkmeyer said.
“You might be listening,” she said, “but you’re not necessarily responding.”
She also suggested that the way the department uses BridgeCare to match and enroll students — by asking families to rank five choices — falls short of a major tenet of universal preschool: let parents drive the decision about where their child will attend preschool.
“This was supposed to be about parents having a choice when in reality, they put in their information and you all decide where they’re going to go,” Kirkmeyer said.
Zenzinger, who is chair of the Joint Budget Committee, said the persistent trouble that providers and families have had with BridgeCare stems in part from the fact that providers and districts do not have the ability to update their enrollment figures directly in the system, making it “really cumbersome.”
Bethany Ager has navigated complications of the enrollment system firsthand in Brighton School District 27-J, where she works as the district’s early childhood coordinator.
“Some of the barriers are still there,” Ager said after the hearing. “We can’t help families access their application. We can’t help them edit. We cannot do any customer service. We have to hand them off (to the department), and so the solutions that the DEC is working on are all workarounds, working around the system, the BridgeCare system, which is also problematic.”
Ager said her district is also using Google Forms and working with its local coordinating organization — which is helping implement universal preschool at the local level — to get kids in the right spot.
The system has also introduced questions around what schools have waitlists for preschool programs, said Mat Aubuchon, executive director of learning services for Westminster Public Schools. Since families apply and enroll in preschool directly through the state’s system, districts like his don’t know what choices they make and therefore cannot answer families’ questions, he said.
Ager and Aubuchon want to be able to do more than simply log into BridgeCare and see who has applied to and been matched with their schools.
“I think if we had autonomy within the system for our own children that we’re serving, that would alleviate a massive amount of our pain points,” Ager said. “Most of it is because there’s two middlemen (CDEC and local coordinating organizations) in between us and our families, and if that barrier was gone we could help our families in the moment, make sure kids are in the right spot.”
Odean said the department is working on enhancing the system to automate it as much as possible and reduce the administrative burden on schools and providers.
Problems or not, this program is better than its predecessor
Despite the hiccups, Riley Kitts, policy director at Democrats for Education Reform in Colorado, is confident that universal preschool is a significant improvement over its predecessor, the Colorado Preschool Program.
“I think we would be kidding ourselves if we were to say that this new system is more difficult for parents than the old system when the reality is it’s much simpler,” Kitts said.
He acknowledged that the issues providers have been struggling with are valid, but stressed that the department is working to solve them.
“These are folks that have taken on the burden of caring for our kids, have not had a lot of administrative support for years, have struggled to make ends meet financially for years,” Kitts said, “and so the world has been challenging for them prior to this.”
Lawmakers said they are equally concerned about whether universal preschool is addressing the needs of children who have disabilities and are assigned an individualized education plan — which spells out accommodations for their education, including what services they will receive, and how their performance will be measured.
Kirkmeyer fired one question after another at Roy and Odean, asking how confident the department is that every child who needs an individualized education plan is getting evaluated and receiving a plan and how the state is ensuring those children are enrolled in a full day of services. She also said it’s still unclear how many children with an individualized education plan are attending preschool in private settings.
Educating kids with special needs is “one of the hugest issues” for districts, Kirkmeyer said, adding that districts can be held liable if they are not ensuring that students are getting the services they’re entitled to.
Odean said the department is fully committed to making sure students with disabilities receive the number of preschool hours their plan guarantees.
“The reality is it’s been really hard, and I will say our team works directly with each administrative unit to ensure that they’re getting those direct placements in,” Odean said.
The department is also considering running students with individualized education plans through the matching process before their peers, which helps the department better comply with federal law and ensures those students are matched with an available seat, department spokesperson Ian McKenzie wrote in an email.
“Nothing is set in stone,” he wrote.
CDEC is embroiled in a lawsuit filed by school districts and educational organizations including the Colorado Association of School Executives demanding access to the enrollment system. The lawsuit highlights districts’ concerns about universal preschool funding as well as their ability to comply with state and federal rules around educating students with disabilities.
On Monday, a Denver District Court judge approved the state’s request for an extension to file a response to plaintiffs’ motion in the lawsuit over universal preschool, said Melissa Gibson, deputy executive director of CASE.
Gibson echoed lawmakers in wanting to see more collaboration among CDEC, school districts and providers.
“Both public and private providers need a seat at the table and have historically been incredibly successful partnering together serving preschool students and families,” she said. “We would love to be a resource and have made that offer from the start. They have either ignored our feedback and suggested solutions and/or told us they’re working on it.”
Roy declined to comment on the lawsuit, citing pending litigation.