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Applications are now open for Colorado's free preschool program

 Applications can now be submitted for free pre-school in Colorado for the semester that begins August 2023.
Applications can now be submitted for free pre-school in Colorado for the semester that begins August 2023.

The application window has just opened for Colorado's new universal preschool program.

All four-year-olds and some three-year-olds are now eligible for free preschool for classes beginning in August, 2023.

Maeve Conran spoke with Ann Schimke who writes about the program in Chalkbeat Colorado.

Ann Schimke:  Governor Polis, when he was first elected four years ago, universal preschool was one of his signature priorities.

Two years into his term, voters approved a nicotine tax that would help pay for that vision of universal preschool.

Over the past year and a half or so, early childhood leaders have been kind of planning how the program's going to work, and it officially launches next summer.

So probably August or September is when kids are actually going to start going.

Maeve Conran: What are the age ranges of children who are now eligible to avail of this free preschool?

Ann Schimke: Primarily the program is designed for four-year-olds, those are children who will be eligible for kindergarten the following year.

There's also some slots for three-year-olds, and those will be for children who have certain qualifying factors.

So for example, maybe they speak a language other than English at home, they have a disability, they're homeless, they're in foster care, or their families are lower income.

So those three-year-olds will qualify.

In addition, four-year-olds who have similar factors will qualify for more hours.

So the standard for four-year-olds is 15 hours a week.

Four year olds with these various factors, they'll qualify for 30 hours a week, so almost kind of a full-time type of schedule.

Maeve Conran: What you're describing there really gets to the heart of a lot of what Governor Polis has talked about when it comes to the benefits of early education, (it) is that if you can intervene, especially for children who have other disadvantages, you can really make a difference, but it's that early intervention.

So maybe talk a little bit more about why these children who are eligible for these extra hours, why it is so important, or the ethos behind trying to intervene with them as early as possible.

Ann Schimke: Yeah, I think that's exactly right, that when students do come to school with various disadvantages, whether they have a disability or they come from a low income family, it does help them to kind of intervene early and make sure that they're getting the skills they need to start kindergarten.

I think universal preschool in Colorado is also going to serve another purpose, and that's for families who maybe are even verging into middle income thresholds.

So the income threshold for universal preschool, where those children will get 30 hours, it actually goes up to 270% of the federal poverty line, which is around $80,000 for a family of four.

And I think that was chosen in part because even for middle income families, preschool is extremely expensive, and so I think in addition to helping students who need the most help early, they're also trying to help families who struggle to pay for it.

Maeve Conran: It's one thing to qualify now for free preschool, but it's a very different thing to actually find preschool programs.

And we have heard how difficult it can be, particularly in rural areas or even some urban areas, to find well childcare and some suitable preschools as well.

So what about that, is there a concern there are not enough facilities in the state to actually accommodate all of these preschoolers?

Ann Schimke: Yeah, I think that is possibly a concern.

The state did tell me last week that more than a thousand preschool providers had signed up to offer universal preschool.

I think the issue may not even be if there's enough slots available, but how those slots are distributed around the state.

As you said, it's possible that in some rural areas, there's going to be a shortage of slots compared to the demand.

I think we have yet to really see it yet because the kind of matching and enrollment process won't happen right away.

I think that's going to become clear this spring as the state kind of makes those matches and parents figure out whether they've actually got a spot.

Maeve Conran: I would imagine that there's going to be a lot of tracking of data to see how this is going to impact educational outcomes.

I mean, is there a sense that we're going to see some significant changes by having so much early intervention now for four-year-olds and some three-year-olds in Colorado?

Ann Schimke:  I think that's absolutely the hope is that we see the impact of preschool in kind of later grades or, you know, elementary grades and going on up the ladder.

I do think there's still some questions there because one of the things that the state has not determined yet is what quality standards they're re going to require preschool providers to meet.

That decision is going to be made this spring.

So I think there's still many questions, including from providers about, you know, what curriculum they'll need to use and just various other standards that they may need to meet.

I think research has shown that high quality preschool is what gets you the biggest bang for your buck in terms of impact on children, but since we don't know the quality standards, I think it's an open question.

Maeve Conran: How many three-year-olds and four-year-olds in Colorado are expected to enroll in this?

What are some of the statistics coming with this program?

Ann Schimke: So the state is expecting about 30,000 four-year-olds to enroll, and that's about half of the total four-year-olds in the state.

On the first day of the application, about 12,000 families applied.

So it's possible it will even be more than 30,000 children when all is said and done.

Maeve Conran: That's still, as you said, only half of the four-year-olds in the state.

So what about the other half? Why are they not availing of this?

Ann Schimke: So one thing to note is this program is voluntary.

Parents do not have to put their children in preschool at all, and even if they want to, they don't have to choose a participating universal preschool provider.

If the provider they've used maybe for childcare has decided not to participate and they're happy with that provider and they're able to pay for it, they may choose to stick with that provider.

And like you mentioned, there also could be a shortage of slots in some areas.

So even parents who want to avail themselves of the opportunity, it's possible their child won't get a slot if there just aren't enough in their community.

This story was shared with us via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations including KDNK in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico.

Maeve Conran