More hours of preschool voters should pass ballot

Barely able to beat the sunrise as she scurries out the door each morning, Hennessey Jones’ days unfold furiously, ricocheting between drop-offs at her daughters’ preschool first thing, a full day of work and another stop at school to gather her girls before finally returning home.

The single mom of two has come to rely on the round-the-clock care that her children’s preschool, Clayton Early Learning, offers her family, allowing her to work eight-hour shifts repairing phones and computers uninterrupted while they attend school 40 hours per week.

But that well-worn routine may soon require further sacrifice as she weighs two options for her younger daughter next year, each with unique costs. Jones could keep her daughter, now 3, at Clayton Early Learning where she knew she would be cared for by familiar teachers who swoop in for a hug any time of day, enrolling her in the state’s expanded preschool program to receive 15 hours of free preschool and paying a monthly $200 in tuition to cover additional hours. Or she could transfer her daughter to a public school where she would be guaranteed those 15 hours of preschool funded by the state. If her daughter is accepted into the preschool’s full-day program, she will continue having care covered during the work day. Being passed up for the full-day program, however, would likely mean Jones would have to cut her work hours so that she can pick up her child mid-afternoon.

She can’t easily afford to continue covering tuition or curbing her work shifts. Neither can many Colorado parents whose jobs dictate a need for child care during the hours that are booked end the school day. While the state’s promise of 15 hours of subsidized preschool a week helps families save upfront — a yearly average of $6,000, according to the Colorado Department of Early Childhood — it also only partially meets their needs. That forces many families to find other funding resources or pay out of pocket to cover more class time.

“At the end of the day, the burden is put back on parents in order for providers to keep their doors open,” said Paula Smith, chief impact officer of Clayton Early Learning. “It’s not that we want to, but there’s no other way we can do this. Someone has to pay the price for quality care in education.”

And the price for that care is rising, Smith said, with universal preschool acting as one of the supplement providers able to access to support the costs behind quality care in education.

Students play with mud on Tuesday, June 29, 2021 during Clayton Early Learning’s first celebration of International Mud Day in almost five years. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Parents have expressed a need for more preschool hours throughout the state’s development of its expanded preschool program. A report published by Early Milestone Colorado in January 2022 highlights the extent to which parents are echoing one another in their need for additional hours of care and schooling. That report, based in part on parent input, noted that among families who stated they were elemental about whether they would enroll their children in preschool, more than a third said a lack of full-day care was a deterrent. Additionally, nearly 75% of families indicated that they preferred at least 20 hours of preschool each week, and more than 40% of respondents indicated that they preferred full-day care.

State leaders sort of listened, opening up Colorado’s new preschool program to all families with preschool-age children, veering away from the Colorado Preschool Program, which provided state-subsidized preschool hours to a limited number of kids. And the state boosted the number of guaranteed hours for all preschoolers to 15 from the original offering of 10. Kids from low-income households along with those who have special needs, are homeless, are learning English or are in foster care qualify for more hours .

Despite Colorado’s new preschool program falling short of the number of school hours many working parents need for their children, thousands of families have already enrolled. As of Tuesday, the state had matched more than 31,500 families with one of the preschool providers where they applied for a spot, according to figures provided by CDEC.

“Universal preschool is taking us in a much better direction than we’ve ever been going in before as a state,” said Melissa Mares, director of early childhood initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign. “So what we had before was really a fragmented system of systems that wasn’t serving anyone well. It was often duplicative and families had to struggle through it, and many families had access to preschool at all.”

“We’re building a system that we can continue to advocate to put even more money in,” Mares added, “and the system … is being built in a way that is really thinking about families’ needs first.”

Still, the program leaves parents like Jones wondering what next year will look like if they can only secure a fraction of the preschool hours they need through the state.

“A lot of parents are frustrated by it,” Jones said. “They don’t like the program so far. There’s just a lot of frustration around the little amount of hours. They just wished it was more.”

Jones wants to see her 3-year-old daughter continue to thrive in the one-on-one care she’s grown accustomed to at Clayton Early Learning, where educators help her resolve momentary meltdowns and spend time with students making scented Play-Doh from scratch and painting with mud. But it’s getting harder for the Denver mom, who also uses funding from the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program to afford preschool, to keep paying $200 a month toward full-day care — a bill that won’t change next year even if she decides to keep her daughter there with the help of the state’s 15 hours of free preschool.

She is contemplating enrolling her younger daughter in a public preschool program as her 5-year-old daughter heads to kindergarten in Denver Public Schools in the fall. That option could save her a monthly payment, but if her daughter is not accepted into the school’s full-day program, it would offer her family only 15 hours of preschool each week, potentially slashing her work hours and income. She hopes Colorado’s new preschool program will continue expanding to eventually offer 40 hours of subsidized care to working families.

“It would mean the world just to be able to not worry about where your child gets care and to have free preschool and not worry about paying for it,” Jones said.

Voters will decide this fall whether the state can keep a pot of excess dollars to fund more preschool hours for more kids

Dawn Alexander, executive director of the Early Childhood Education Association of Colorado, knows of families who faced similar dilemmas before being placed in a preschool that wasn’t their first choice. Some wanted to stay in a preschool program in which their child had already received full-day care but were routed by CDEC to a preschool in a public school district where an older child was enrolled, Alexander said. That means those families won’t get a full day of care.

“You have to leave work whenever their preschool ends and go pick them up and take them to their community-based providers for child care or to their grandparents or whoever is going to do that care,” she said. “So you have to do that in the middle of your workday in order to make sure that your child has their needs met.”

Confusion about universal preschool and the level of care available to families continues to grip parents across the state, Alexander noted.

“There are signs all over the state that are like, ‘free preschool,’” she said. “And people are thinking, like, ‘oh great, like I can go put my child there for the whole day.’ That is not the truth.”

CDEC, which is managing the development of the state’s expanded preschool program, “hopefully continues building the program and services in the future,” department spokesperson Hope Shuler wrote in an email.

Shuler declined a department interview with The Colorado Sun and acknowledged that many parents have child care needs beyond part-time preschool “just as they often have child care needs above and beyond the school day for K-12 graders.”

“Full-day preschool also has demonstrated excellent outcomes for those who are ready,” Shuler said.

Students scoop up mud on Tuesday, June 29, 2021, during Clayton Early Learning’s first celebration of International Mud Day in almost five years. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

But CDEC is focused on its immediate plan to roll out a minimum of 15 hours of free preschool a week to all families, she wrote, with no specific future plans to provide additional hours to any children other than those who qualify for a full-day because they have special needs, are homeless, are learning English or are living in poverty or foster care.

Gov. Jared Polis, who has been a fierce proponent of an expanded state preschool program, aims to ramp up preschool programming to 18 free hours per week and find more ways to fund full-day care for kids who need it, Conor Cahill, a spokesman for the governor, wrote in a statement. He did not offer any specifics on how the state would fund those additional hours of preschool for each family.

More young learners with challenging life circumstances and learning needs could access additional hours of preschool should voters approve a ballot measure in November that asks them whether the state can keep nearly $24 million in extra funds generated by Proposition EE in its first year. That measure, which funds the state’s newly expanded preschool program, was approved by voters in 2020 and raised taxes on cigarettes and all other nicotine and tobacco products.

During the 2021-22 fiscal year, which ended last June, the measure collected $208 million in tax revenue, about $24 million more than projected by nonpartisan analysts at the Capitol when considering interest.

The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights mandates that money collected in excess of a tax’s projected revenue be refunded unless voters decide to allow the government entity that collects the tax to keep extra dollars.

If Colorado voters reject the latest ballot measure in the fall, the state will return all additional funds generated by Proposition EE to cigarette, tobacco and nicotine distributors. Colorado’s universal preschool program would also face financial consequences far into the future, with tax rates on cigarettes, tobacco and other products containing nicotine that were originally increased being cut by 11.53% to prevent generating another excess of funds.

Tax rates would also have to be readjusted in future years to stem another revenue surplus, Shuler said.

That would not affect the state’s ability to provide 15 hours of free preschool to every child in the year before kindergarten in the future, he noted, but it would mean fewer kids facing financial and academic hardships would receive extra hours of preschool that they’re entitled to under state statute.

And rejection of the ballot measure would make it harder for Colorado to offer any more free preschool hours in future years, Shuler wrote, adding that CDEC will evaluate yearly whether it can increase hours for all families.

“If you don’t have additional funding,” Alexander, of the Early Childhood Education Association of Colorado, said, “how do you do that?”

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