Eli, left, and Noah, both 4, play at You be You Early Learning in Aurora on Jan. 19, 2022. The mobile preschool is parked in a public housing complex, where it serves people in the neighborhood for free. (Eli Imadali for Colorado Newsline)
Democrats’ plan to implement universal preschool — a key campaign promise of Democratic Gov. Jared Polis — passed a major test Friday, securing approval from the Colorado House of Representatives.
The 522-page bill to create a no-cost preschool program by fall of 2023 has four Democratic sponsors: Rep. Emily Sirota and House Speaker Alec Garnett of Denver, Sen. Janet Buckner of Aurora and Senate President Steve Fenberg of Boulder. Just three Republican representatives got on board with their plan.
House Bill 22-1295 would establish the responsibilities of the state’s new Department of Early Childhood. By July of this year, the new department would take over most existing early childhood programs from the Department of Human Services and the Department of Education — as laid out in a transition plan approved last year. The Colorado Preschool Program and Early Childhood At-Risk Enhancement programs, which provide funding for a limited number of kids to attend preschool, would be melded with the statewide voluntary, universal no-cost preschool program by the 2023-2024 school year.
All Colorado children would be eligible to receive 10 hours per week of state-funded preschool the year prior to starting kindergarten. Children with disabilities and certain kids from low-income families would be eligible starting at age 3.
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“We are doing something truly transformational,” Sirota said on the House floor Thursday.
The bill passed the House on Friday on a vote of 43 to 19. It received the support of Republican Reps. Colin Larson of Littleton, Mary Bradfield of Colorado Springs, and Dan Woog of Erie, but the rest of the “yes” votes belonged to Democrats.
Rep. Mark Baisley, a Roxborough Park Republican, opposed HB-1295 based on principle, he said. “I see no appropriate role for government to help people raise their children,” Baisley told Newsline before the bill’s first hearing.
Other Republicans said they were worried about how the state would fund the universal preschool program in the event that the General Assembly also passed House Bill 22-1064, which would ban flavored tobacco and nicotine products, decreasing tax revenue from those sales. A ballot initiative approved by voters in 2020 directs tax revenue from nicotine and tobacco sales toward universal preschool.
“I really hope that you all will take into account the fact that we should not be starting new departments, new divisions, new services for the state without the ability to look beyond this year,” Rep. Kim Ransom, a Lone Tree Republican, urged her colleagues Thursday.
Under HB-1295, the Department of Early Childhood’s executive director would have the authority to enact statewide rules around early childhood programs with the help of a 15-member advisory council.
To set up the universal preschool program, the Department of Early Childhood would review applications from local public entities and nonprofits and, from the list of applicants, select local coordinating organizations for each community in the state. Those local organizations would be in charge of helping families apply for early childhood programs, recruiting public and private preschools to the state’s provider network, and more. This structure parallels the recommendations of the Early Childhood Leadership Commission as laid out in its universal preschool plan.
Under HB-1295, the Department of Early Childhood would take over the Child Care Assistance Program, or CCAP, from the Department of Human Services. The department would need to figure out a new way of calculating pay rates for the child care providers serving CCAP families — one “that more accurately reflects the cost of child care, while still complying with federal law and procedures.” To address the shortage of early childhood educators, the department would create a plan for “recruiting, training, and retaining a well-compensated, well-prepared, high-quality early childhood workforce.”
The bill heads next to the Senate for consideration.
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