First step toward universal preschool: creation of Department of Early Childhood Education, Gov. Polis, Democrats say

Voter-approved Proposition EE requires Colorado to use nicotine and tobacco tax revenue for program

Janet Buckner
Rep. Janet Buckner, an Aurora Democrat, speaks at a news conference May 5, 2021, at the state Capitol. (Faith Miller/Colorado Newsline)

Even if every Colorado family could afford to send their young child to a preschool or day care, there’s only enough capacity in the state to serve 58% of kids under 6.

That statistic comes from KIDS COUNT in Colorado, an annual report published by the advocacy organization Colorado Children’s Campaign. It describes the state’s child care capacity in 2018 — before the coronavirus pandemic forced many preschools and child care centers to shutter, at least temporarily.

Upcoming legislation announced by Gov. Jared Polis and state lawmakers aims to help fill the gap, by starting on the path toward preschool for every 4-year-old in Colorado at no cost to families.

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Such a policy has been “advocated by … many involved in early childhood education for years,” Polis said at a Wednesday news conference.

The money would come from new taxes on tobacco and nicotine products that Colorado voters approved in November 2020 with Proposition EE. The ballot measure, which the Legislature referred to Colorado voters, said the taxes would help to fund, among other initiatives, no-cost, voluntary preschool for 4-year-olds by 2023.

In order to do that, proposed legislation would give early childhood education its own department under state government. The newly announced bill is sponsored by Rep. Emily Sirota, a Denver Democrat, and Sen. Janet Buckner, a Democrat from Aurora.

Emily Sirota
State Rep. Emily Sirota, a Denver Democrat, represents Colorado House District 9. (Colorado General Assembly photo)

Before establishing the new Department of Early Childhood Education in July 2022, the bill would require a “transition planning process” involving everyone from parents to child care providers to special education providers, Sirota said in an interview.

Proposition EE, Sirota explained, was “setting the destination, and now everyone is getting together to plan our route.”

The universal-preschool bill will be named after Anna Jo Garcia Haynes, a longtime advocate for improving access to child care and president emeritus at Mile High Early Learning, a Denver provider of subsidized early childhood education.

“Anna Jo Haynes has been the wind beneath my wings since I came to the Legislature in 2015,” Buckner said during the news conference. “It’s because of her we’re here today.”

Polis, a Democrat, made early childhood education central to his campaign platform in 2018. After taking office in 2019, he signed legislation that prohibited districts from charging families money for full-day kindergarten. In 2020, he signed the bill that referred Proposition EE to voters.

In summer 2020, before the election, lawmakers, state agencies, child care providers and parents held discussions about how to implement universal preschool if Proposition EE were to pass, Sirota said.

“What really came to the forefront was that the current governing structure is too difficult for our families and our providers to navigate and access what may be available to them,” she said, adding that the group had concerns that establishing a new preschool program could disrupt other existing state programs, like infant and toddler care.

The advocates came to the conclusion that the best solution would be to create the Department of Early Childhood Education, which could house all of Colorado’s early childhood programs in one place and be more “user-centric,” Sirota said. Six other states including New Mexico use similar models.

Anna Jo Haynes
Anna Jo Haynes, seated, is recognized during a news conference at the Colorado Capitol on May 5, 2021. (Faith Miller/Colorado Newsline)

Child care challenges

In 2018 and 2019, 1 in 10 young children in Colorado had a parent who reported they or someone in their family had to quit a job, not take a job or greatly change a job because of problems with child care, according to the National Survey of Children’s Health. That figure doesn’t take into account the mothers, fathers and relatives who had to find care for a child whose school closed for in-person classes due to the pandemic.

According to a 2020 survey of child care providers conducted by Early Milestones Colorado, nearly 10% of the 1,200 providers surveyed reported they had closed due to the pandemic. Some had reopened, but weren’t sure about their program’s future.

Of 11,000 families with children under age 12, about one-third reported lacking needed child care at the time they were surveyed.

House Speaker Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat who has young children of his own, said he knew firsthand how child care in Colorado “can be burdensome, it can be costly, and it can be challenging to access.”

Other bills at the state Legislature this year seek to address the child care shortage and barriers to affordable care. One of the central pieces of legislation, House Bill 21-1222, is close to the finish line.

HB-1222 — sponsored by Reps. Alex Valdez, D-Denver, and Kevin Van Winkle, R-Highlands Ranch, along with Sens. Jim Smallwood, R-Parker, and Faith Winter, D-Westminster — would require the state, cities and counties to regulate family child care homes like residences. The bill comes in response to a December 2019 report that identified conflicting state and local regulations as a driving factor in the decline of Colorado’s child care resources.

HB-1222 passed the House on April 6 and the Senate on May 3. The House must consider Senate amendments to the bill before casting a final vote that could send it to the governor’s desk.

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