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Problems with universal pre-K registration persist into second year

Policymakers remain optimistic, despite challenges
In the first year of the universal pre-K program, more 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool last academic year but fewer students with disadvantages, like living in poverty or learning disabilities, are being served, according to data analyzed by PBS. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Registration for universal preschool is open for the next year with a new qualifying factor designed to increase student eligibility for school programs. However, some Durango educators remain concerned about access.

The program got off to a rocky start last year. Families struggled to navigate the new registration process online, and the state changed the eligibility requirements for full day subsidized schooling a month before school started.

Instead of the promised 30 hours a week for all families, the state could offer only 15 hours a week for families with 4-year-olds or 30 hours for 4- and 3-year-olds who met qualifying factors. Families with 3-year-olds or 4-year-olds who didn’t meet the state qualifications were left to make up the rest of the tuition cost for full day care or accept 15 hours a week.

The state added a qualification for children “living in poverty,” which are children living at or below 100% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines. This change will allow more children to qualify for 30-hour subsided schooling.

In the first year of the program, more 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool last academic year but fewer students with disadvantages like living in poverty or having learning disabilities are being served, according to data analyzed by PBS.

The choppy rollout left educators and families frustrated and a little weary entering the next school year.

The online registration process is a particular area of concern for families and school administrators.

The state said in a news release on the Department of Early Childhood Education website that it had made improvements to the enrollment process, but problems with the website and registration process continue to persist in Durango.

For example, one of Durango School District 9-R’s half-day programs isn’t in the system correctly, making it so families can’t register for it.

Jennifer Baufield, 9-R’s director of Early Childhood Programs, said she spent several weeks trying to get the issues resolved but has received delayed responses and been bounced from one representative to the next. As of last week, the department had yet to add the district’s half-day program to its website.

“The Colorado Department of Early Childhood has either miscommunication or processes have changed, which makes navigating the registration challenging when the processes are changing, and the communication is slow regarding those processes,” she said.

Even the simple registration process remains a concern for her.

“It’s challenging for families to understand how the matching process works and what they’re supposed to do to accept the match,” Baufield said.

Excluding the city of Durango, La Plata County is a child care desert with approximately three to five times more children than there are spots in licensed child care facilities, according data from the Center of American Progress. On the Southern Ute Indian Tribe reservation, there are 43.22 children for every one slot in a licensed facility.


“The demand for a universal preschool program is there,” said state Rep. Barbara McLachlan. “I think people are going to be really, really happy with this. I think they are serving a huge need in Colorado, probably across the country. … It’s just going to be messy for a while.”

McLachlan admits the program may have been a little smoother had it spent a few more years in development.

“You can always wait five more years and do a better job,” she said. “And by then, you’ve lost several kids in there that could have been going to preschool and didn’t.”

She said it is too early to judge the effectiveness of the program.

Despite her challenges and reservations, Baufield also remains hopeful.

“I believe in the possibility of universal preschool and I believe that the recognition and importance that early childhood has received through this initiative has been positive,” she said. “I’m hopeful that five years down the line we’re going to have all these glitches (smoothed out).”

A wider federal change remains a distant possibility. President Joe Biden once again emphasized early childhood education in his State of the Union address earlier this month.

“I want to give every child a good start by providing access to preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds,” he said in his speech.

He included no specific plan to pay for universal preschool in his address. Biden emphasized early education and universal pre-K in his legislative agenda, including it in his Build Back Better plan, which never passed the Senate.

Policymakers continue to disagree about the proper implementation of a federal universal preschool, halting further serious conversations about implementing a federal program.

More than 70% of Americans support government-funded universal preschool, according to a recent survey from moderate conservative journal Education Next.

Early childhood education has long been linked to better outcomes for children throughout their lifetime with studies dating back to the 1970s, showing a distinct connection between early education and better education attainment, employment and even health outcomes.

Preschool education is also shown to boost the economy by allowing mothers to reenter the workforce sooner than they otherwise might have. After the passage of a universal pre-K program in Washington, D.C., maternal participation in the workforce increased from roughly 65% to just over 76%, according to a study from the Center for American Progress.

Colorado legislators seem to remain dedicated to its implementation.

“Every child deserves a chance to succeed, and I’m thankful for the work of state officials to increase young learners’ access to early childhood education across Colorado,” Sen. Michael Bennet said in an emailed statement to The Durango Herald. “I’ll continue doing what I can to help expand Pre-K services so that every child can be prepared to succeed in school.”

Sen. John Hickenlooper declined to comment for this story, but says on his website that he supports universal pre-K.

Eliza DuBose, a senior at American University, is an intern for The Durango Herald and the Journal in Cortez. She can be reached at the edubose@durangoherald.com.

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