DENVER — When Colorado launches free preschool for 4-year-olds in 2023, it will join a half dozen other states that already offer universal preschool.
All of them have encountered the same tricky task Colorado leaders now face as they try to knit together a disparate patchwork of public and private preschools into an equitable and high-quality statewide system. We’ll take a look at some of the lessons learned in four states: Florida, Oklahoma, Vermont, and Wisconsin.
Some, like Oklahoma, have offered the program for decades, while others, like Vermont — one of the few places to offer free preschool to all 3- and 4-year-olds — have joined the club more recently. Wisconsin officials said they don’t consider their preschool program universal because school districts don’t have to offer the state-funded classes, though 99% do.
Colorado’s universal preschool program will offer 10 hours a week to all 4-year-olds, with children who have higher needs eligible for more. Funding will come from Colorado’s existing state-funded preschool program, which is for children from low-income families, or who have language delays, or other risk factors, and proceeds from a voter-approved nicotine tax.
Advocates in the four states cited ongoing challenges in everything from ensuring high-quality offerings to making part-day preschool work for families, but they also said the programs are generally popular. In all four states, at least 70% of 4-year-olds participated prior to the pandemic.
Sherry Carlson, chief program officer at the Vermont advocacy group, Let’s Grow Kids, said the state’s system is not perfect, but “usage is an indication that we’re on the right track.”
The half-day problem
Colorado’s plan to offer 10 hours of preschool a week to most children is similar to preschool programs in states like Florida, Vermont, and Wisconsin. The problem is that half-day programs don’t work for a lot of families.
Professor Beth Graue, director of the Center for Research on Early Childhood Education at the University of Wisconsin Madison, studied Wisconsin parents’ preschool choices and found that many declined to enroll in the program because of the schedule.
“The half-day format is a nightmare for at least a third of all the parents we surveyed,” she said. “It’s curious to me in today’s day and age that people imagine that a half day would work.“
When universal preschool originally launched in Florida, the vision was to offer both a 3-hour and a 6-hour preschool day, but there was never enough funding for the longer day, said Madeleine Thakur, president of the advocacy group, The Children’s Movement of Florida. Some schools — those that receive federal funds for low-income students — cover the extra cost of full-day preschool for some students, but the coveted spots are in short supply.
In Vermont, momentum had been growing to increase the number of state-funded preschool hours beyond the current 10 a week, but the pandemic derailed that discussion, said Carlson.
“There is a lot of agreement, particularly among working families and schools, that more time would be better,” she said.
Teacher qualification conundrum
The four states profiled have various requirements for universal preschool teachers — Oklahoma and Wisconsin require them to have bachelor’s degrees, while Florida does not. Vermont is something of a hybrid — requiring bachelor’s degrees for universal preschool teachers in public school settings, but not for all teachers in private settings.
These differences reflect both ongoing national debate about whether teachers with four-year college degrees provide better preschool experiences than those without, and the reality that such requirements pose a major financial barrier in light of the field’s low pay.
The National Institute for Early Education Research, which ranks states annually on preschool access and funding, includes bachelor’s degree requirements among 10 benchmarks showing whether states have key quality standards in place. Experts say preschool can produce short- and long-term benefits for kids, but only if it’s high quality.
Colorado’s existing preschool program doesn’t require bachelor’s degrees and meets only four of the institute’s 10 benchmarks.
Carlson, who estimated that 60% of Vermont’s universal preschoolers are served in private settings, said the more lenient degree requirements for those classrooms was one of the concessions made when the program began. The state has put money toward helping preschool teachers further their education, but more needs to be done, she said.
Carlson’s advice to Colorado: “Be willing to compromise with a plan [that says] this is where we’re starting and we’re going to keep working to get to … where the vision was.”
Thakur, of Florida, said many wonderful preschool teachers don’t have bachelor’s degrees currently so it shouldn’t be a requirement at the inception of a universal program. Plus, with teachers in private preschool settings often paid much less than public school counterparts, it’s not fair to require the degrees, she said.
Who’s got access?
The idea behind universal preschool is to serve every child whose parents want a spot, but that can be hard to deliver on a consistent statewide basis.
Carlson said offering preschool in both public and private settings helps ensure access in Vermont, partly because private centers can often provide wraparound care that meshes with parents’ work schedules and locations. At the same time, some preschoolers with disabilities lose out on special education services if they attend preschool with private providers outside of their school districts, she said.
The goal should be to “put children and families at the center,” she said. “Then don’t let paperwork or artificial boundaries” get in the way.
Joe Dorman, CEO at the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy, said reaching rural children has been a struggle in his state. In some cases, it’s because of preschool staff shortages or a dearth of seats, but there are also some families who don’t see the value of preschool, he said.
“This has been one of our crown jewels,” he said. “It amazes me that people won’t take the time to look at the benefits and see the good that can come from it.”
Dorman said Colorado should educate parents about the free preschool program before children turn 4.
“Begin the promotional process early,” he said. “Ensure that families recognize this.”
Preschool and K-12: separate or together?
In some universal preschool states, school districts are in charge of overseeing the program locally and offer many preschool seats in public school classrooms. These factors make school districts a key player in the universal preschool discussion, but also raise questions about how close the association should be.
Experts from other states said it’s important that universal preschool be designed around the developmental needs of young children.
Thakur said Colorado leaders should be careful “not to bring the rigor of the K-12 system down into preschool.”
“You’ve really got to focus on relationships, making sure children learn how to communicate, cooperate, listen, and follow routines,” she said. “Those are the kinds of things that are a real down payment for the kindergarten teacher.”
Colorado’s existing preschool program is administered by school districts and 77% of students attend the program in public school classrooms, but planned changes could shake up public schools’ role in universal preschool.
Graue agreed that preschool should be developmentally appropriate, not narrowly focused on math and literacy, but also noted the downsides of divorcing preschool and K-12 policy.
During a statewide class size reduction effort in Wisconsin, for example, Graue said kindergarten classes went down to 15 children, but preschool classes in the same buildings were often much larger because they weren’t included in the state initiative.
In addition, although Wisconsin’s state-funded preschool classrooms in private settings must adhere to class size caps mandated by state child care regulations, public schools aren’t subject to those limits. Instead, each district establishes its own preschool class size rules.
“That’s the problem of the 4K [Wisconsin preschool] program working in this liminal space between K-12 and the child care system,” Graue said.
Ann Schimke is a senior reporter at Chalkbeat, covering early childhood issues and early literacy. Contact Ann at firstname.lastname@example.org.