How Colorado Went From ‘Laggard to Leader’ in Early Childhood Education


How Colorado Went From ‘Laggard to Leader’ in Early Childhood Education

Gov. Jared Polis shares how and why his state has invested in the field and how that work could be scaled nationally.

By Emily Tate Sullivan     Jun 27, 2023

How Colorado Went From ‘Laggard to Leader’ in Early Childhood Education

In late April, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis sat down at his desk to make some phone calls.

The governor, on this day, was calling to deliver good news. He wanted to personally congratulate some of the 22,087 families who had matched with their first-choice provider for Colorado’s free, universal preschool program, which launches this fall.

A parent named Katie, in Summit County, was among those who received a call from the governor.

“Oh, thank you so much. That helps me out so much,” Katie said after the governor shared that her daughter Lillian would be enrolled in the family’s preferred early childhood program.

Polis, a Democrat who is in his second term as Colorado governor, replied: “We’re excited that Lillian will benefit from universal free preschool and save you some money and get her a very strong start for her education. Congratulations.”

Universal preschool is one of several initiatives the state has launched in recent years to make Colorado a better place to both raise a family and to work in the field of early care and education.

Soon after Polis made those phone calls to the families of 4-year-olds, he told me about it during a fireside chat, where we discussed the progress Colorado has made to move, as he puts it, “from laggard to leader in early childhood education,” and what it would take for other states to do the same.

The conversation was live streamed to a virtual audience during the sixth annual Reagan Institute Summit on Education on May 24. A recording of it has since been made publicly available. Below, you can read highlights from the conversation, which have been edited and condensed for clarity, or watch the full discussion.

EdSurge: You have made early childhood education a top priority for your administration. I'd love to know the backstory there. What inspired your interest in this space?

Gov. Jared Polis: Well, I've been involved with education for over 20 years — I served on the State Board of Education in Colorado — and it was really the data that first drove me to get involved with high-quality universal early childhood education. [I saw] the strong body of data that shows not only the the positive benefits of early childhood education financially, in terms of reduced grade repetition and reduced youth adjudication, but just as importantly closing the achievement gap before it occurs, which is far more effective than everything that we need to do and are trying to do in fifth grade and eighth grade and 10th grade. It really makes an enormous difference — those early years — in giving every child a strong start.

The universal preschool program is obviously one of your big victories as governor of Colorado. Can you explain a little bit about what that will look like and how you feel it's going so far?

Polis: When I first became governor of Colorado, we only had half-day kindergarten. And again, preschool was only for, if you will, the wealthy, with some low-income slots. Everybody else was struggling to figure it out. So the first thing we did in my very first year is we made full-day kindergarten available to every family, and that saved families about $400 to $500 a year. But in addition, it made sure that everybody was able to access full-day kindergarten, because before that, you had families who couldn't afford it so some kids were going home at 11:30 and not getting the benefit of the learning time other kids did.

After we got that in place, we went to the voters with universal free preschool. The funding mechanism we used is effectively a vaping or nicotine tax. We had this kind of loophole where vaping had zero tax even though cigarettes were taxed.

That's a dedicated funding source, which is important. It's not subject to political debate. It's not subject to different parties or politicians coming in and going after it. It's a dedicated funding source for universal free preschool, which we are now rolling out this fall.

The demand is very strong. We've already had over 25,000 families sign up, and in fact, they were just matched with their preschool provider. Ninety-one percent got matched [with] their first [choice], and others who didn't will be able to go back and pick another provider.

We call it a [mixed-delivery program]. We wanted everybody who offers high-quality preschool to be able to [participate in] this program to serve families at a time when costs are rising and families are making sacrifices. We didn't want that sacrifice to be their kids' education.

What about the early childhood educators? Many of them make steep personal and financial sacrifices to continue to provide care and education in what effectively amounts to a broken system in this country. How is the state of Colorado supporting early childhood educators?

Polis: We’re supporting them in two ways. First, [we’re providing programs with] the robust funding of universal preschool, spending about $6,000 per student. So for a class of 10, that's about $60,000. And preschool is part-time; generally, it's about 15 to 20 hours a week. So you could often have, effectively, about $120,000 in funding, if [the program is] running two classes of 10. That doesn't mean it all goes to [the educators]. As you know, there's a lot of overhead [to run an early childhood program]. But the key thing is that this robust funding source didn't exist before.

The pay scale is getting closer to the K-12 professional pay scale — not that we pay our K-12 teachers enough, we need to do more there. But at the very least, we want to make sure our early childhood educators have that level of professional pay that allows them to support themselves.

For the future pipeline, we made the training for becoming a certified early childhood educator free through our community college systems. We looked at a few very high-demand professions [with] workforce shortages. Early childhood education was among those professions, and we said, ‘We are going to make it free.’ And that's a real ‘free,’ as I like to say. There's no shipping and handling. There are no textbook costs. There are no classroom fees.

It's a real free that enables them to pursue that career. Asking people to go into debt and make enormous sacrifices without the huge earning potential is a much harder ask. And sure enough, across the programs that we've made free, it increased participation by about 20 to 30 percent. We're excited to do that to kind of open the doors of the early childhood profession.

You have had success bringing people together and building coalitions despite a challenging political climate nationally. Talk to me about your commitment to good policy over partisanship, especially in this environment.

Polis: When I was first elected in 2018, running on a platform of full-day kindergarten and adding preschool, my very first call as governor-elect was to a Republican representative, Jim Wilson of Salida, Colorado, a former superintendent who had been working on full-day kindergarten for many years. And I said, ‘We're gonna get this done.’ He was our lead sponsor, along with Democrat Barb McLachlan, on the full-day kindergarten bill.

When we built out the coalition around preschool, it passed in very conservative counties. I mean, this passed in red counties and blue counties, because everybody — 67.8 percent of people statewide — Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, agrees kids ought to be able to go to preschool. So it really resounded across the partisan divide, the geographic divide, the economic divide. And we're very excited that this fall kids in Colorado will be able to go to preschool.

I have heard so many people say that early childhood education is — or can be and should be — a bipartisan issue. Obviously in the state you've found that to be true, but have you found that outside of Colorado?

Polis: You know, it's harder to say. I worked on this issue in Congress, nationally. I was very hopeful that whatever was in Build Back Better could potentially include preschool. It obviously didn't. It's a little harder at the national level because you get into the slightly more ideological discussion of what the federal government should or shouldn’t be involved with.

But I think if people are driven by the data, at least making sure that more kids have access to early childhood education, [they’ll see that] it’s practical and effective. It can meet goals that conservatives and progressive share, like reducing crime and improving upward mobility for families. These are all great things, and I encourage people of both parties to look at supporting early childhood education, regardless of what level of government they work in. It could be at the school district level or it could be at the municipal, state or federal level.

You mentioned your time in Congress. I’m curious how your understanding of early childhood education has evolved since then?

Polis: I've always been a strong advocate, but frankly, the ability to get more done and actually do it rather than just talk about it, was part of what drove me to take this path as a governor.

I certainly spent a decade talking about it. We launched universal preschool bills, and it was a great effort. And there was a real opportunity after I left; Build Back Better almost did it. But the fact is it still hasn’t happened nationally.

I'm patient, but 10 years is a long time, so I came home to actually do it in Colorado rather than probably just talk about it in Congress for another 10 years.

Everybody can get involved — a district, a city, mayors, governors and members of Congress — and I'm still hopeful that someday we'll have this opportunity for early childhood education across the nation.

What advice do you have for other governors or leaders seeking to impact the early childhood landscape, whether nationally or in their jurisdictions?

Polis: It's a great benefit for the people of your state. It can save people money, improve the workforce today, invest in the next generation, [and it’s] an opportunity to improve academic achievement and outcomes. And it really aligns today's needs with the needs of tomorrow in a compelling way that can help prepare your state for success.

We're excited about this new direction and about moving Colorado from laggard to leader in early childhood. And of course, we're moving ahead with more opportunities for high-quality child care, including employer-based and site-based [options], so parents don't have to run around as much and can visit their child during lunch. We want to be on the forefront of making Colorado the best state to have kids.

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