Starting in 2023, Colorado will pay for 10 hours of preschool per week for every 4-year-old in the state, regardless of income.

Supporters say expanding access to early childhood education will help close achievement gaps earlier, help learners rebound from impacts of the pandemic and advance structural equity in Colorado’s public education system.

The initiative will be funded, in part, from proceeds of a nicotine tax hike approved by voters in 2020, which will triple state taxes on a pack of cigarettes to $2.64 by 2027, and impose new taxes and fees on smokeless tobacco and vaping products. It also will be funded from the state’s existing preschool program, which serves children with certain risk factors.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed into law legislation to launch the universal preschool initiative. Polis, a Democrat serving his first term, campaigned on providing free preschool.

“There is no better investment than an investment in education and our kids,” said Polis in a KUSA-TV report .

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Terri Mitchell, Canyons School District’s early childhood administrator in Utah, said the proposal will likely give more Colorado children access to high quality instruction, which is important as the nation continues to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Children who will be 4 years old next year were toddlers when the pandemic began.

“Since the pandemic started, they have missed out on quite a few things. So, they missed out on social opportunities. They’ve missed out on experiences that they possibly could have normally had with their families but things were locked down and shut down,” Mitchell said.

Those experiences help prepare children for instruction and to be part of a learning community when they start school.

“We’ve noticed that even in Canyons School District that we’ve had an increase of students with more needs emotionally and socially with their peers,” as well as delays in their language development, she said.

Mitchell said the benefits of early childhood education are well documented, but it is highly important that families have an array of options that respect their individual needs. Some children struggle to self-regulate at that age and it may be unrealistic to expect they can handle a structured classroom setting.

“My question is, are we as adults creating that problem for him and helping him be unsuccessful or are there other ways we can help him be successful?” Mitchell said.

Colorado’s systemic approach

Colorado has adopted a systemic approach to early childhood education, said Anna Thomas, senior policy analyst for the nonprofit child advocacy program Voices for Utah Children.

Earlier in Polis’ term, the Colorado General Assembly expanded full-day kindergarten with state funding. Universal preschool was the next milestone in the plan, she said. The just-approved legislation also established a state Department of Early Childhood.

“We do not have that systematic approach in Utah. We are still struggling to get our state leaders, specifically leadership in the Legislature, to understand that in order to do well in first grade, lots of kids in the state need a lot of help in kindergarten that you can’t do in two and a half hours,” Thomas said.

As Colorado prepares to launch universal preschool, Utah is planning to somewhat expand its full-day kindergarten offerings with an additional $12.2 million ongoing appropriation approved during the recent general session of the Utah Legislature.

Presently, Utah public schools provide 30% of students access to full-day kindergarten compared to the rest of the nation, where 80% of students have access to full-day programs. Educators had sought funding to expand the program statewide but lawmakers appropriated far less than the $23 million in ongoing funds requested by the Utah State Board of Education.

Some school districts have chosen to offer full-day kindergarten programs on their own, cobbling local, state and federal funding and grants to support the program.

Wasatch School District, for instance, has offered full-day kindergarten since 2018. While some parents initially preferred the traditional half-day program for their children, now only a handful of parents ask for that option. The vast majority of the district’s kindergartners attend full days, according to Superintendent Paul Sweat.

A public opinion poll conducted for Voices for Utah Children indicates high support for public preschool, too.

A statewide poll of 1,976 Utah voters conducted last summer showed that among parents with children not yet old enough for K-12 school, 70% would enroll their kids in public preschool if they had the opportunity. Meanwhile 66% with children past preschool age said they would as well.

A whopping 90% of people polled viewed pre-kindergarten programs as beneficial, with 51% saying they are very beneficial and 39% saying they are somewhat beneficial. The Y2 Analytics poll’s margin of error is plus-minus 2.2 percentage points.

Thomas said it makes her “really, really happy for the kids and the families in Colorado that are going to benefit” from the state’s early learning initiative.

“I think Colorado is going to see way down the line, you know, in 20, 30, 40 years, but their state will reap the benefits of having kids who have that kind of support early in life. I’ll be excited to see what they do as they get this established and work out the kinks,” she said.

Preschool in Canyons District

Canyons District offers preschool programs in 22 classrooms spread across 12 schools. Some 900 children ages 3-5 are enrolled and families have the option of sending their kids two days a week or four days a week. Each class lasts 2.5 hours and morning and afternoon sessions are offered. Children may only attend 2.5 hours a day and the program follows the same academic calendar as the district’s K-12 schools.

The district provides preschool services to children with disabilities and those who live in the boundaries of Title I at no charge. Other families can elect to attend preschool and are assessed tuition, which starts at $100 a month to attend two days.

All classes are a mix of students with disabilities and those without, which Mitchell said benefits all learners.

“Our students who pay tuition are wonderful role models, social models, language models for our students with disabilities. They learn empathy for students ... who are different, right? They learn how to be protectors or warriors for those students who have disabilities. I really think it builds a culture of inclusion,” she said.

In theory, Colorado’s preschoolers should benefit from the universal tuition program, but maintaining a stable workforce of educators and aides in the preschool segment poses challenges.

Most of the teachers leading Canyons District preschool classes are licensed teachers, which means they receive salaries and benefits. Many of the teachers were paraprofessionals whom Mitchell convinced to complete college degrees and become teachers. “We kind of grew our own,” she said, noting there is low turnover among licensed teachers.

Preschool paraprofessional Ana Suastequi, left, plays with students at Sandy Elementary on Wednesday, April 27, 2022. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

But for classroom assistants, it has been difficult to maintain sufficient staff and at times, Mitchell has been pressed to fill in in classrooms this school year. It’s a problem statewide, she said, explaining that multiple school districts in Utah offer some form of preschool program.

The labor shortage may impact Colorado’s plans to offer preschool services to every 4 year old, but Mitchell credits Colorado officials for understanding the value of early childhood education.

“I think it’s great that Colorado has figured out a way to provide that for families. I think that’s awesome. I think it could really benefit kids,” she said.

The Utah Legislature funds a home-based educational technology program, Waterford Upstart, to develop school readiness skills of preschool children. It is offered free to Utah families and the vendor can provide laptops and internet connections to qualifying students.

Upstart is an excellent learning tool for kids, “but it’s not preschool, and it is not a substitute for preschool. It can be a supplement. It can be a great family thing where parents can work with their kids and help them learn. It’s not preschool, just simply no,” Thomas said.

If Utah is serious about investing in children, it would say yes to a full array of programs and services such as Upstart, preschool and full-day kindergarten and “not ‘let’s pick the least investment that we can and hope that does the trick.’”

Gov. Spencer Cox’s 2022 State of the State address proposed a new office to bolster families by ensuring “government policies are not harming families and that we are coordinating government services to help parents and children succeed,” he said.

Thomas said she’s yet to hear any follow-up to that proposal and it’s unclear how early childhood education would fit into that plan.

“I haven’t seen any indication from the governor’s office or the Legislature that they’re really serious about taking on investing in young kids, their education and in their health in order to ensure that 20, 30, 40, 50 years down the line that Utah families have what they need to be happy and successful.

“So we’re very happy for them (Colorado families) and kind of feel like, ‘Are we ever going to get there in Utah?’”

Correction: A previous version incorrectly stated families that elect to attend preschool in the Canyons District are assessed tuition, which starts at $100 a week to attend two days. The assessed tuition starts at $100 a month to attend two days.