Boulder, Broomfield counties begin planning for universal preschool


Matt Eldred, executive director of Longmont’s TLC Learning Center, sees Colorado’s new universal preschool program as an opportunity to give families more choices so they an enroll children in the programs that best fit their needs.

It’s also, he said, a good first step in creating a better-funded childcare system — but only a first step.

“This is a piece of the bigger pie of how we fund childcare for children birth to five,” he said. “As a community provider and early childhood education advocate, I want to see a system where every child receives the birth to 5 services they need.”

LONGMONT, CO - AUGUST 24:Preschooler Hudson, last name withheld, plays with blocks in a class at TLC Learning Center in Longmont on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)
Preschooler Hudson, last name withheld, plays with blocks in a class at TLC Learning Center in Longmont on Wednesday. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)

The state, he said, needs to subsidize early childcare if it’s going to be sustainable. Low pay has led to staff shortages, but raising pay would require higher tuition rates — and raising tuition rates would price out families. At the same time, early childcare is expensive to provide because of requirements that include low student-to-staff ratios and  frequent staff training.

As is the case for many local providers, Eldred is waiting for more information on how universal preschool will mesh with his center’s offerings before deciding if the TLC can participate. The nonprofit center, which started in 1956, provides inclusive childcare and pediatric therapy services.

“There are so many questions about what universal preschool will look like,” he said. “The implementation date of Aug. 23 is really the only thing we know. The system is still being built.”

A new state law approved in April established 10 hours of tuition free preschool a week for all 4-year-olds starting in the fall of 2023. The law also created a new department to oversee universal preschool and other child development programs in Colorado.

The addition of universal preschool follows the state funding free, universal full-day kindergarten in 2019. Both programs were campaign promises from Gov. Jared Polis. Universal preschool is expected to save families an average of $4,300 a year.

In 2020, Colorado voters approved a measure by a two-to-one margin that increases taxes on nicotine products to, among other things, implement the preschool program. The new taxes will bring in an estimated $275 million in annual revenue once fully implemented in 2027.

The new Department of Early Childhood hasn’t yet established rules for the universal preschool program, including age eligibility, but it’s designed for 4-year-olds in the year before they start kindergarten. The state estimates there are about 2,000 preschool-aged children in Boulder County, and 600 in Broomfield County.

Some children will qualify for more than 10 state-funded hours based on risk factors that are still to be developed. Children also will continue to qualify for the state’s Child Care Assistance Program, Head Start and other funding sources, which can be stacked on top of the 10 universal preschool hours.

Universal preschool will replace the existing Colorado Preschool Program, which provides 10 hours a week of preschool for at-risk students and is administered by school districts. Boulder Valley and St. Vrain Valley provide spots in their preschool programs for Colorado Preschool Program students, as well as partner with community child care centers to provide additional spots.

LONGMONT, CO - AUGUST 24:From left: Preschool teacher Mary Beth Boyer helps Elliot and Logan, last names withheld, with a puzzle at TLC Learning Center in Longmont on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)
Preschool teacher Mary Beth Boyer, from left, helps Elliot and Logan, last names withheld, with a puzzle at TLC Learning Center in Longmont on Wednesday. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)

Universal preschool will be implemented locally by early childhood councils.

Danielle Butler, the Early Childhood Council of Boulder County’s executive director, said the state’s early childhood councils are uniquely positioned to handle the local implementation of universal preschool.

“Early childhood councils have been doing this work for more than 20 years,” she said. “We have the partnerships with the school districts and childcare providers, at home and centers. It’s a rejuvenation of the work we’ve always done.”

She said the work for the planning year will include collecting data on the preschool programs, including licensed home childcare and — potentially — home childcare that’s exempt from licensing based on enrolling just a few children.

“We’ve got a big year in front of us,” she said. “The answers will come. The model is to do it all together.”

Another main component will be communicating with parents to make sure they know the program has started and how to access it.

“Universal preschool is all about parent choice,” she said.

A common concern following the pandemic, which led to some child care closures and was followed by ongoing staffing shortages, is the capacity to add preschool spots if universal preschool creates increased demand.

Butler said she sees hiring childcare workers as Boulder County’s main challenge.

“The biggest issue is if there’s anyone to hire and if there’s enough money to pay them,” she said. “It’s expensive to hire and expensive to keep the workforce trained.”

Broomfield Early Childhood Council Director Jessica Jones said she wants to provide as much support as possible so childcare providers can participate.

“We don’t want them to feel overwhelmed,” she said. “We tend to throw so much on them anyway. We’re there to support them and make sure it’s an easy transition. We’re an intermediary.”

Building capacity to meet demand also is an issue in Broomfield.

“That capacity issue, we’re running into some problems,” Jones said. “We’ve had a few new childcare centers pop up, but their issue is staffing.”

While the council can’t help raise salaries, she said, she still wants to help providers meet other worker needs, from training to self-care to recognition.

“It’s a hard job,” she said. “Let’s do everything we can to make them feel supported.”

On the provider side, the Boulder Valley and St. Vrain Valley school districts are the area’s largest preschool providers.

Last school year, St. Vrain Valley enrolled 1,231 students in its preschools, along with 111 more preschoolers at partner sites for a total of 1,342. This year, 1,325 preschoolers are registered.

St. Vrain has preschool programs at 26 sites plus the standalone Spark! Discovery Preschool in Frederick, along with contracting with three community preschools — Wild Plum, TLC Learning Center and the Aspen Center — to provide additional Colorado Preschool Program spots.

Boulder Valley enrolled about 725 preschoolers this fall, with preschools located at 20 elementary schools and the standalone Mapleton Early Childhood Center in Boulder.

While there’s space to provide preschool programs at more elementary schools, the district doesn’t have the money to operate additional programs — but district officials say they’re looking at opportunities to expand through the universal preschool program.

Boulder Valley also contracts with three community preschools — The Family Learning Center, Head Start and New Horizons Cooperative Preschool — to provide Colorado Preschool Program spots.

Isolde Stewart, the director at New Horizons Cooperative Preschool, said she was disappointed Boulder Valley wasn’t chosen to administer the universal preschool program.

She said the school district was a great administrator, making sure the program worked well for her small bilingual preschool in north Boulder. About half her students are funded through the Colorado Preschool Program, while the other half pay tuition. She also uses grant money and other funding sources.

“We will all be starting from scratch — new agency, new rules, new relationships, new process,” she said. “It will be all new everything.”

Another concern she shared is funding for at-risk 3-year-olds. She said it’s unclear if that funding will continue through the Colorado Preschool Program, given that universal preschool only targets 4-year-olds.

The rate that providers will be reimbursed by the state is another unanswered question. The current Colorado Preschool Program reimbursements are based on school district’s K-12 per-pupil funding. The plan for universal preschool is to calculate a rate based on the actual cost to provide high-quality care for preschoolers — though if there’s enough money to significantly raise the rate is an open question.

In Boulder Valley, the district receives around $4,700 for each Colorado Preschool Program student — well below what district officials say its costs to provide a high quality preschool program. Boulder Valley subsidizes its preschool program with money through its general fund and tuition paid by about a third of its preschool families.

Lisa Swainey, YMCA of Northern Colorado’s vice president of community programs, said she’s optimistic universal preschool will increase access and help even the playing field, but she also has concerns.

“Coming off COVID, especially, it just feels daunting,” she said. “We just need to make sure the right people are at the table to problem solve.”

The YMCA now has year-round preschools in Longmont in Boulder County and Johnstown in Weld County, serving about 250 students a year, and plans to open preschool programs in Boulder and Loveland in the fall of 2023.

Swainey said the families who need help affording preschool are often the ones that also need full-time care, not just 10 hours a week. At the YMCA preschools, most families also enroll children in full-time care, making scheduling part-time care more challenging. Another concern is if 10 hours a week is long enough for students to learn all the kindergarten readiness skills.

“For lower-income families, I want to make sure they’re taken care of,” Swainey said.

The Denver Post contributed to this story.

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