Q&A: Head of Colorado’s new universal preschool program talks about new opportunity for parents

10 hours of no cost preschool a week starting next fall
Posted at 2:30 AM, Jan 17, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-17 11:01:45-05

DENVER – Colorado’s new universal preschool program, which allows families with eligible children to receive up to 15 free hours a week of preschool, is now live Tuesday.

Denver7’s Nicole Brady sat down with its director, Lisa Roy, to talk about what this program is all about, who can benefit and how parents can take advantage of the program.

The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.

Universal preschool program registration begins in Colorado: Here's why the state says it's important

Nicole Brady: Who is this for? How many up families do you hope this will benefit in Colorado? And what are the first things families should do on Tuesday if they're interested in this?

Lisa Roy: Well, first of all families, please apply. If your child is going to be in preschool this coming school year, the year before they enter kindergarten, you qualify for universal preschool. That's plain and simple. Doesn't matter what your income is, you qualify for up to 15 hours, which is a half day of preschool.

NB: Mostly it is kids in that year before Kindergarten, but there are some additional students who may qualify if they're only 3 years old, is that right?

LR: That is correct, there are. So, all of our school districts currently serve 3 year olds, and they have qualifying factors, like having an IEP, if the child is homeless, if the child is in a low-income family – they can qualify for slots at the school district, those are what we call targeted. So not every child is eligible. So they will have to get in touch with their school district with the availability of those slots. But for 4 year olds, it's totally universal.

NB: So tell me who these providers are. We're talking, as you mentioned, school districts down to home daycares. Is that right?

LR: Yes. So home base, center base and school base, as long as they are licensed, they are currently entering their information into our portal. And we'll be ready for families to choose their top five providers for their child to go to preschool next year, this coming school year.

NB: We know early on there were concerns about making sure there were enough providers, making sure there are enough early childhood educators out there and people working in this industry to provide high-quality child early child education to students. So with the job crunch as it is, we know there is a K-12 teacher shortage, how is your office helping to ensure that there are enough early childhood educators out there?

LR: Well, I will say the department has done a lot of work on using stimulus dollars to attract and retain our early two care and education providers around the state. I will have to read it because we've done so much. So, one thing we've done is $50 million in grants to childcare providers to retain their existing early childcare workforce and recruit new educators back into the profession, nearly $21 million in recruitment and retention such as scholarships, free minimum coursework through the community college system.

And then we have apprenticeships, we have peer mentorship, we have free online training for childcare directors. The Early Childhood Educator tax credit, which I had the pleasure of helping to support personally by going through credentials – they'll get a refundable tax credit of 750 to $1,500 and nearly $10,000. Early childhood educators are eligible for that tax credit.

There's loan forgiveness for early childhood educators teaching and early learning programs across the state. We just launched an early childhood salary increase pilot to use federal funds to work directly with a handful of providers around the state to increase wages. We’re funding to reduce the background check of these waive licensing fees for new providers – $3 million for providers to start or expand the childcare center for or family childcare home, $5 million for bonuses to providers that sign up to participate for universal preschool, that's just to name a few.

NB: So clearly, this was a challenge you knew needed to be addressed and you got on that.

LR: There absolutely was… – it was a governor's priority. And I came into this position seven months ago, and many of these initiatives had already been launched. That just shows again, the forethought that Colorado had to ensure that we had the slots, the early childhood professionals ready for this challenge.

NB: There are terms that people use to describe early childhood education. One is daycare, childcare, preschool, of course, is another and I think that is so important to talk about: How this isn't just daycare, this isn't just a babysitter for kids and these educators aren't just babysitters, and how important is making sure people realize that when we talk about early childhood care and universal preschool…

LR: Well, it's interesting. I remember when I got into this field over 30 years ago, Anna Jo Haynes, who runs higher learning – she's the president emeritus now – saying, ‘We don't take care of days, we take care of children.’ So again, your question is important. We believe that all of our early childhood providers from birth to pre-K are professionals. We, as a state, make sure that they have the credentials, training and support coaching that they need to provide high quality learning environments for all children.

We know during the pandemic that parents really understood the importance of childcare, preschool teachers, K-12. Because again, it wasn't an easy job. And many parents who are at home, trying to do their regular job while trying to take care of their children, it was a huge challenge. So I think there's a greater appreciation for the professionalism that our early care and education providers bring to the table.

NB: Will you start tracking data and any specific data on the outcomes for kids or families? And how will you look at that data to determine if this is a success?

LR: It's important to recognize that we will be tracking data. Colorado has done an incredible job for many, many decades of tracking for our targeted preschool program, how kids are doing and looking at outcomes, and our data shows that we've done a phenomenal job with kids who attend preschool from targeted programs.

We'll also be able to look at that now with our universal programs. We'll look at what parent’s choices are – home-based, center-based, school-based; and use that data also to inform how we roll out our training and technical assistance at the LCO level, which is local coordinating organizations. But again, we really do believe in using data to make shifts and changes to better the program overall.

NB: Would you like to see all 4 year olds getting an education at that age, or all 3 year olds for that matter? And how far would you like to see this go?

LR: Oh, my goodness. Well, again, in an ideal world, because this is voluntary, I would like the opportunity for any family that has a 3 or 4 year old to have access, especially for families that work. But again, I wouldn't dictate what a family decides. But access is important. And I'm so grateful to the state of Colorado to our governors of the legislature for understanding that this is important to families.