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Opinion

New state rules will help more Colorado kids in need access quality early childhood education

Credit: iStock

by M. Michael Cooke, Colorado Newsline
December 18, 2023

Recently, Colorado’s Department of Early Childhood proposed a new qualifying factor for their Universal Preschool, or UPK, program, to take effect next school year. This proposal is precisely the responsive, collaborative policy-making that will ensure the greatest number of vulnerable children and families who need access to high-quality preschool most are equitably and inclusively served.  

Since the launch of UPK, preschool families, providers, and state officials have agreed: While the initial qualifying factors written into statute were a good start, we as a state must remain committed to ensuring children living in poverty receive access to the resources they need in order to thrive.

The proposed rule change would do just that. By establishing a new qualifying factor for children “living in poverty” (defined as at or below 100% of the federal poverty guidelines), this rule change would greatly expand the eligibility of children experiencing poverty to receive 30 hours of free, high-quality preschool across the state.

In its first year, UPK provided about 3,500 children full-day funding; estimates have this new rule benefitting an additional 3,000 children living in poverty with full-day funding next year — a nearly 86% increase. This is a significant gain that will make a remarkable difference in the quality of life for children and families across Colorado. 

This rule change couldn’t come at a more critical time for low-income families and the providers serving them. In 2022-23, there were an estimated 4,877 families in Colorado living at or below the federal poverty guidelines. An additional 3,109 qualified for public assistance, and 1,378 were unhoused. With the end of federal stimulus funding for many of the programs assisting these families, the early childhood community and kids and families were at increasing risk of being unable to access quality early childhood education.

The research is clear: The benefits of access to early childhood education extend beyond children’s confidence and self-esteem. Not only is it an investment in higher literacy rates and math skills, higher  K-12 graduation rates, and greater opportunities for secondary education; early childhood education is a down payment on better jobs, and higher incomes for these children as they become adults. It’s a down payment on better health markers, on needing less taxpayer support, on less crime, and on adults less likely to experience homelessness. Access to early childhood education also strengthens local economies: Parents are able to work, and with UPK, are able to save more money to support their families. In this way, CDEC’s proposal for a new qualifying factor is also a continued investment in the future that everyone in Colorado deserves. 

The goal of Colorado’s Universal Pre-K Program is to allow all kids, regardless of income, to develop an early love of learning. Having a universal program means that any Colorado family with a 4-year-old can access 15 hours of free early childhood education at the provider of their choice, whether that be a school district or a local, family or faith provider.

The expansion of who qualifies as low-income is so beneficial for thousands of Colorado families. This change will continue expanding access to education to more and more children, which is what UPK is and should be all about. 

There is still more we should be working towards to continue strengthening this program. The proposed quality standards are a strong step in the right direction as they continue to improve delivery of the program, and we look forward to working with the Department on finalizing and implementing these standards. 

This doesn’t change the fact, however, that this new proposed change is a move in the right direction and hopefully an indication of future improvements to come for Colorado kids and families.

As the costs of preschool in our state and across the country continue to inflate, we cannot afford to shy away from bold proposals that support children and families in — and out — of the classroom. If approved, CDEC’s new qualifying factor will allow preschool providers to serve the families who need them most, ensuring all kids, and all families, in all places, have the opportunity to thrive. 

This story is republished from CO Newsline under a Creative Commons license. Read the original story.