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Colorado UPK: Support for low-income, Black students becomes casualty of switch to universal model

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Some preschoolers from historically underserved backgrounds may be falling through the cracks and not getting the extra support they need.
Photo: Ann Schimke, Chalkbeat Colorado

DENVER — New standards for which students qualify for Universal Preschool (UPK) have left many children who previously received preschool help with less support.

Low-income and Black preschoolers specifically see fewer opportunities even as Colorado’s pilot program has expanded the number of kids served.

"It is very concerning that fewer Black children received free preschool hours this year [for the full-day program]”, said Jackie Zubrzycki, a spokesperson for the Colorado Children's Campaign.

"Too many Black families are already facing barriers to accessing early childhood programs that meet their needs, in Colorado and across the country,” she said.

At the February meeting for the Rules Advisory Council (RAC), which advises the Colorado’s early childhood chief, RAC member Cassandra Johnson said she did not want to see Colorado going backwards, and “finding that we are creating a larger gap because we are missing those children that we were once supporting,” she said.

Colorado’s Universal Preschool program, popularly known as UPK, launched in 2023 and the targeted preschool program, Colorado Preschool Program (CPP), was sunset.

UPK ensures 15 hours of tuition-free preschool each week for every Colorado child the year before kindergarten. The program receives funding through a nicotine tax measure, Proposition EE, passed by voters in 2020.

To provide 15 free hours to all four-year-olds, regardless of their family’s economic means, the state has decreased hours towards a full-day program — which Colorado counts at about 30 free hours each week for four-year-olds.

That decision has a disproportionate impact on non-Hispanic Black four-year-olds and other children from low-income backgrounds across the state. The number of children from these communities receiving a full-day preschool program declined from the previous year.

Under CPP, 564 Black four-year-olds received 20 hours of free preschool. Under UPK this school year, 295 Black four-year-olds receive 30 hours of free preschool.

That means last school year, Black four-year olds received 11,280 tuition-free hours in the full-day program. Now under UPK, the state provides only 8,850 free hours to Black four-year-olds for a full-day program — a 27% decline.

The decrease could indicate some children from historically underserved backgrounds are falling through the cracks, and not receiving additional support.

Among three-year-olds and younger, 205 Black children received a full-day under CPP — 20 hours of tuition-free preschool a week. But none would be eligible for a full-day preschool program this year under UPK. 

At the Rules Advisory Council meeting, executive director of early education at Denver Public Schools, Priscilla Hopkins, echoed Johnson’s concerns about which families qualify for additional support.

“I don’t want to punish hardworking parents. We don’t want one of them to say well if we want pre-K one of us should just quit our job,” she said.

Experts point to new qualifying factors under UPK as the reason for the lower numbers of children receiving additional funding.

For the 2023-2024 school year, not only do families need to meet an income threshold — below 270% of the Federal Poverty level, or a gross family income of about $81,000 for a family of four — but families also need to meet additional qualifying factors, including having limited English proficiency in the home, experiencing homelessness, having an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or having a child in foster care.

“Families of color, specifically African American families, may meet the criteria for the poverty level, but don’t meet the second qualifying factor to get additional funding because they speak English at home, and, according to academic research, they under-report homelessness,” said Andrea Ives, business manager of the early education department at Denver Public Schools.

Many don't interpret “homelessness” as living with a relative, for example, even though the state would categorize them as such.

“It takes away a large population that should qualify for that additional support. It’s an unintended consequence of inequity,” said Jane Walsh, the director of community partnerships in Denver Public Schools’ early education department.

Walsh confirmed this was a concern raised by many providers.

Most families facing financial hardship were also not eligible for additional preschool support.

Almost half of all families enrolled in UPK meet the low-income threshold — with a gross family income below 270% of the Federal Poverty level. That’s about 18,600 children enrolled in UPK.

But only 3,216 children receive the full-day UPK program — only 16% of all families facing financial hardship currently enrolled in UPK.

For parents who work full-time and experience economic hardship, the burden falls on them to cover the remaining fees for a full day of childcare or to figure out another childcare option, often relying on a network of family and friends or dropping out of the workforce all together.

Miranda Al-Mouradi works as family services director for Mile High Learning, a preschool in Denver. Al-Mouradi said that very few of their enrolled families qualify for more than 15 hours.

“A more expansive definition [of who qualifies for additional hours] we feel like would actually reach more children,” Al-Mouradi said.

In late October, the Colorado Department of Early Childhood proposed a new rule to establish a new qualifying factor for "children in poverty," identified as children living at or below 100% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines — equivalent to a $30,000 annual income for a family of four.

“What we heard from stakeholders in this first year was that the issue there is that it actually we have no mechanism to capture a qualifying factor for those who are in the absolute most dire poverty.”

Beginning in the 2024-25 school year, this rule change will expand the eligibility of children experiencing poverty to receive full-day preschool. If you are at 100% or under the federal poverty guideline, you are ensured the full-day option.

For some, the federal income standards are too low.

"Slashing from 270% to 100% of federal poverty guidelines will exclude many families making minimum wage in a high cost of living area,” wrote Sarah Gyory during public comment at the February meeting for the Rules Advisory Council.

The cost of living in Colorado is 6% higher than the national average, according to Rentcafe, with some parts of the state being upwards of 16% higher. Families with a relatively high income in those areas may still be extremely financially strapped.

According to the department’s press release the new qualifying factor, “is intended to increase equity and provide additional support to uplift Colorado’s most vulnerable populations,” and the state estimates additional pre-school hours will become attainable for 3,000 more children.

Families and providers expressed concerns that this new qualifying factor does not go far enough to ensure support for Colorado’s most vulnerable children, however.

This change will not benefit families like that of Ellen Emmerling, a single mom of three whose annual income of $40,000 does not meet the 100% federal poverty level.

Katherine Ritchie-Rapp, general counsel for Harrison School District 2 in Colorado Springs, wrote as a public comment that the new qualifying factor will not help the low-income kids whose family falls between 101% and 270% of the federal poverty level.

“In order to fund the middle and upper class, only the poorest of the poor will be eligible for additional services, not the poor and low-income families,” Ritchie-Rapp said.

According to Roy, CDEC has a limited pot of money. “We always have to make sure that the base is taken care of,” she said, with the priority being on providing 15 free hours to any four-year-old, regardless of their ability to pay.

Some feel this to be unfair. 

“If you are going to distinguish between the different levels of poor, maybe do the same on the other end, and distinguish between the different levels of wealthy,” wrote Ritchie-Rapp.

Lizzie Mulvey is the executive producer of investigative journalism at Rocky Mountain PBS.

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