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Sarah Schreffler acts out “Mrs. Wishy-Washy” with her preschool students Sept. 28, 2023, at the Bob Sakata Education Campus in Brighton. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

An additional 3,000 4-year-olds living in poverty would be eligible for full-day preschool under proposed guidelines by the Colorado Department of Early Childhood.

The department wants to expand how it determines which children are eligible for more free preschool hours beyond the standard 15 hours guaranteed through its universal preschool program to all 4-year-olds the year before they start kindergarten. 

The state currently uses a list of what is known as “qualifying factors” to identify children who are more likely to fall behind in school because of life circumstances — including kids from low-income families, children who are homeless, kids with disabilities, students learning English and those living in foster care.

Kids who live in low-income households and who have at least one other qualifying factor can receive 30 hours of preschool each week this school year. 

The proposed change would add another qualifying factor: families living in poverty. That would guarantee free full-day preschool for children whose families earn less than 100% of the federal poverty guidelines — for instance, a family of four that earns an annual income of $30,000 or less.

That is a distinction from kids who are low income, which the state defines as families earning less than 270% of the federal poverty guidelines.

Since children must be low income and have at least one qualifying factor to receive 30 hours of free preschool this year, not all children living in poverty have qualified.

The proposed change would “ensure that the children and families who need preschool services the most can get them,” department spokesperson Ian McKenzie said. 

Preschoolers play during recess Sept. 28, 2023, at the Bob Sakata Education Campus in Brighton. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Currently, 3,573 4-year-olds receive full-day preschool out of the 37,154 kids participating in universal preschool.

Earlier this year, the state restricted who would be eligible for 30 hours of preschool after receiving far more applications for universal preschool than expected. The program could not afford to cover all children at risk of falling behind in school with 30 hours of classroom time, so it changed its approach to provide full-day preschool only to those children from low-income households who had at least one other qualifying risk factor.

That meant that instead of providing 30 hours of preschool to all 4-year-olds with at least one risk factor — which was about half of all 4-year-olds in the state — only about 13% of 4-year-olds were granted full-day preschool, Chalkbeat Colorado reported.

The change isn’t aimed at undoing damage of pulling up the program short this year. “We’re more like making good on the vision of … quality access and quality preschool for as many families as possible,” McKenzie said.

Helping families reach “economic prosperity”

One key question: How would those additional hours of preschool be funded after the state fell short of funding all 4-year-olds at risk of falling behind academically this school year?

The Early Childhood department said in a statement that based on revenue projections for the program and projections for the number of kids who will enroll, it is “confident in its ability to add this new qualifying factor to expand access to full-day for children in poverty.” 


Opening up more hours of universal preschool to children living in poverty will create a more equitable system for kids in their beginning years of school, said Melissa Mares, director of early childhood initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

“This is a way to make the program significantly better, make sure that we are getting the most preschool to the kids that need it the most,” Mares said.

She added that the benefits will ripple outward to parents and families living in poverty and help them climb toward “economic prosperity.”

“Beyond the kids themselves, (it gives families) access to consistent, safe, quality care environments (and) helps families, parents or caregivers be able to hold down stable jobs,” Mares said.

The proposed rule is now open to public comment through the department’s public notice webpage. Parents and community members can weigh in by Nov. 22, before the rule goes up for consideration by a subcommittee of the department’s Rules Advisory Council.

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...