Colorado lawmakers set stage for 10 hours of free preschool starting fall 2023

The structure for universal preschool — or at least 10 hours of it a week the year before kindergarten — is set to clear the legislature after receiving initial approval from the state Senate Tuesday.

The preschool services won’t begin until the 2023-24 school year and much of the bill that was voted on Tuesday involved setting up the state agency, the Department of Early Childhood, that will administer it. The department will also take over other resources for family and childhood development currently housed in the Department of Human Services with the aim of creating a universal entry point for people seeking family services.

The department will deputize community organizations, such as nonprofits and public agencies like schools, to connect families with services, including the 10 hours of free preschool.

Backers touted it as a major milestone for delivering on what voters asked for when they overwhelmingly approved Proposition EE in 2020. Skeptics, however, warned it’s creating another large government function without enough money or time to meet Coloradans’ expectations.

In Proposition EE, Coloradans voted more than two-to-one to raise taxes on nicotine products and bring in an estimated $275 million a year by 2027. The proposition text stated the money would be used, among other things, to “enhance the voluntary Colorado preschool program, and make it widely available for free.”

Sponsor Sen. Janet Buckner, D-Aurora, called it a “historic bill” to offer one-stop services for parents looking for early childhood services and child care providers.

“With one-stop-shopping, with this new agency, we’re going to make it easier for these parents and for the providers,” Buckner said. “That’s what this is all about. Families and children, giving everyone the best start they can get so they can lead a more productive life, and making our families proud and helping out those working parents.”

State Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, R-Brighton, spoke against the bill over concerns that it will be operational when it’s supposed to be and that it will truly be a one-stop-shop for family services.

Currently, county human services offer universal applications for services ranging from Medicaid to food assistance and cash assistance for families. Kirkmeyer, who served for 20 years as a Weld County commissioner, worries this department will separate services from each other.

Further, she noted that the state already spends $135 million for child care assistance to families in poverty or close to it, and that money is only able to help 10% of eligible children. The math follows that it would cost $1.35 billion — far more than the expected revenue from the nicotine taxes — just to serve those children.

That’s before confronting the workforce and provider shortage the state is already facing in early childhood care, although the bill specifies the department will be tasked with addressing that.