Aug 4, 2023 - Education

Colorado backtracks on universal preschool ahead of debut

School bus with money

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Colorado's promise of universal preschool still looks like a daydream.

Driving the news: The state is backtracking just weeks ahead of the program's debut and now says it will not offer tuition-free, full-day preschool to all at-risk students.

  • A surge in demand and shortage of money means only those who are low-income and have second risk factors, such as language barriers and learning disabilities, will receive 30 hours of state-paid instruction a week.
  • Other at-risk students will receive 15 hours, the base-level offered to all 4-year-olds. Families are responsible for the cost of any additional schooling.

Why it matters: The total falls short of what Gov. Jared Polis and advocates promised as part of the voter-approved "free, universal preschool" program. And it leaves the families of about 11,000 students scrambling to find tuition money or new schools.

By the numbers: Only an estimated 13% of 4-year-olds can get an additional 15 hours of state-funded preschool, our education reporting partners at Chalkbeat write.

  • That represents about 4,000 of the more than 30,000 who have signed up.

What they're saying: "To cut back on the ones who really need it does not feel fair," said Jean Doolittle, the owner of Southglenn Montessori Preschool in Centennial. "Instead of taking a little bit from everybody, they took a lot from those who need it most."

The big picture: The decision is the latest setback to Gov. Jared Polis' top priority of expanding preschool education.

Context: In 2020, voters approved at least 10 hours a week of publicly funded preschool through an increase in nicotine taxes. The Polis administration later set the base at 15 hours but offered 30 hours to students with high needs. Now that's changing.

  • Asked if parents were misled, Dawn Odean, Colorado's universal preschool director, said "that's a hard one."

The intrigue: The funding shortfall is not a surprise. Legislative staff warned the program would cost $30 million more than the $322 million preschool budget in February, but lawmakers didn't take action to fill the gap.

Of note: Aurora Public Schools has pledged to cover the cost of full-day preschool for at-risk families who were left behind by the state.

What's next: Additionally, a Polis spokesperson said the governor wants to expand preschool and offer 18 hours a week to all 4-year-olds by the end of his second term in 2026.

  • It's not clear where he would get the money.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to show only 13% of 4-year-olds can get an additional 15 hours of schooling, not just 15.


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