Thousands of Colorado families believed their 4-year-olds would get tuition-free full-day preschool through Colorado’s new universal preschool program. In July, they found out it wasn’t true.
The state didn’t have enough money for every child from a low-income family or with another risk factor to get full-day classes. Instead, only a fraction of them — those with low-income status and a second risk factor — would get the longer school day at no cost to their families. The rest had to come up with the extra tuition money themselves, drop down to a half-day program, or bow out altogether.
It was a blow to families, but also a blow to the $330 million universal preschool program that Gov. Jared Polis has made a signature priority of his tenure. For months, critics have charged that the program’s rollout has been rushed, messy, and confusing.
He provided a variety of answers: There’s not enough space. Families seeking full-day classes just want child care. Half-day preschool is better for kids.
So, what’s true?
Chalkbeat fact-checked some of the claims Polis made about universal preschool. Here’s what we found.
Is there enough space?
What Gov. Polis said: “There’s nothing even close to the space for full-day preschool.”
Fact check: This is partially true, but misleading. There are more than 24,000 full-day seats offered by Colorado’s universal preschool providers this year, according to April numbers from the state’s Department of Early Childhood. That’s more than enough for the more than 14,000 4-year-olds who have at least one risk factor and whose families were initially told their children would be eligible for tuition-free full-day classes.
The reason many of those 14,000 children are not being offered full-day preschool as their families expected is because the state doesn’t have enough money, not because it doesn’t have enough space. In some cases, full-day classes may be unavailable in a particular preschool or community, but on a statewide basis there are full-day seats available.
Polis is correct that there’s not enough physical space for full-day preschool for every 4-year-old who will participate in the universal program this year — more than 30,000 kids — but that was never the plan to begin with.
Child care vs. preschool
What Gov. Polis said: “Are you saying you want to pick your kid up at 2:30? Or five, right? If they say 2:30, then they’re in it for the full-day preschool because they value that academic experience. If they’re saying five, because I work and I can’t pick up my kid until five, they need a child care solution.”
Fact check: This is misleading. Polis’ comments suggest that parents wanted something out of universal preschool that wasn’t being offered, namely child care. But the state has long planned to offer full-day preschool hours to some families, clearly stating that in the application and other messaging. In some cases, the Colorado Department of Early Childhood, which is running the new program, even used the word “care” to describe the extra hours of preschool. (On Facebook, for example.)
Finally, giving children educationally enriching experiences and supervising them while parents work aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s also worth noting that preschool classrooms, like infant and toddler classrooms, are governed by state child care rules — so in that sense, preschool is child care.
Is half-day preschool best?
What Gov. Polis said: “This is a half-day universal preschool program. That’s what the voters approved. It’s also developmentally appropriate. Kids benefit the most in that 15-to-20-hour range.”
Fact check: Not necessarily. A 2019 experimental study of preschoolers in the Westminster district north of Denver found that full-day students outperformed half-day students in early literacy, math, physical, and socioemotional development. Full-day students attended for 30 hours a week and half-day students attended for 12 hours a week.
The study was particularly notable because it used gold-standard methodology, with students randomly assigned to full-day or half-day classes. The authors, including Allison Atteberry, who was then at the University of Colorado Boulder, concluded that the study provided compelling evidence “that a full-day, full-week preschool supports young children’s development, at least among a sample of primarily low-income, Latinx children.”
Is universal preschool high-quality?
What Gov. Polis said: “We are funding high-quality preschool.”
Fact check: This is not true. While many participating preschools may offer high-caliber programming, state officials are not requiring providers to meet any particular quality standards during the program’s first year. All providers must meet basic health and safety standards, but those have long been necessary to get a state child care license. The state told providers in April to “keep doing what you’re doing,” and said rules on quality will be added for the 2024-25 school year.
Experts say preschool can produce short- and long-term benefits for kids, but only if it’s high quality. Class-size limits, staff credentials, teacher training requirements, and curriculum choice are often among the criteria used to measure preschool quality.
The universal preschool program has already backed away from class-size rules used in Colorado’s previous targeted preschool program, which was for students with risk factors. The targeted program, which ended in June, capped class sizes at 16 children, while the universal preschool program will allow classes of up to 24.
Elementary students get the same hours. Should preschoolers?
What Gov. Polis said: “I view preschool much like I view first grade, second grade, third grade, fourth grade. We don’t give more fourth grade hours to low-income families.”
Fact check: This is misleading. It may be true that fourth graders from low-income households don’t get extra hours of school, but they already get six or seven hours of class a day.
Since the inception of Colorado’s universal preschool program, state leaders have talked about giving students with the highest needs more preschool to help them get ready for kindergarten. The 2020 law creating universal preschool says to ensure equity, the state “must” invest in extra preschool for children in low-income families. As details of the new program unfolded last year, state officials spelled out what that additional programming would entail: 15 extra hours a week, for a total of 30.
Colorado has long made a point to provide extra help to children who face barriers to educational success — providing extra funding to their schools or direct support to their families. In fact, until the universal preschool program launched this month, Colorado’s publicly funded preschool program targeted only students from low-income families or who had other risk factors. In short, the state recognizes that some kids need more help than others and routinely crafts policy based on that distinction.
Letter informing parents their children won’t get tuition-free full-day preschool
Ann Schimke is a senior reporter at Chalkbeat, covering early childhood issues and early literacy. Contact Ann at [email protected].
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