Colorado’s universal preschool launch experiences turbulence – The Sopris Sun

Colorado’s universal preschool launch experiences turbulence – The Sopris Sun

Colorado’s Universal Preschool program, with a goal of serving as many families as possible, has enocuntered a few bumps along the way. Illustration by Sofie Koski

A fresh wave of expansion is underway following universal pre-K laws passed recently in California, Colorado, New Mexico and Hawaii, according to the latest State of Preschool report from the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. Three other states — Illinois, Michigan and New Jersey — are working toward similar early childhood education initiatives.

The Colorado Universal Preschool program, commonly known as UPK, was signed into law by Gov. Jared Polis in April 2022, making it Colorado’s first free preschool initiative.

Funding for UPK would come, in part, from Colorado voters approving, by a 2-to-1 margin, the passage of Proposition EE in November 2020, which resulted in a new tax placed on electronic cigarettes along with an increased tax on other tobacco products.

Beginning with the 2023-24 school year, UPK allows families to receive up to 15 hours per week of free preschool for 4-year-olds (defined as having turned 4 by Oct. 1). Meanwhile, 3-year-olds with qualifying risk factors, such as a learning disability, are eligible for 10 free hours per week, though their acceptance into the program depends on funding availability.

UPK providers are not limited to public school settings. According to the Colorado Department of Education website, qualifying providers include any “licensed community-based, school-based or home-based preschool setting.”

As the UPK application process began in mid-January, the Roaring Fork School District (RFSD), which offers early childhood programming at every elementary school in the district, got the ball rolling by inviting families to registration events. The initiative is meant to tackle an ongoing issue for Roaring Fork Valley parents who spend an inordinate percentage of their family income on childcare expenses.

Dawn Odean, director of Colorado’s UPK program, was quoted in a recent Christian Science Monitor article saying, “Colorado is an expensive state to live in, and so this is one way that we can help support families economically as well as get to higher child outcomes.”

RFSD’s early childhood programs offer additional scholarships, including the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP) for eligible families. CCAP provides child care assistance to families needing childcare services to support their efforts toward self-sufficiency.

The bilingual and bicultural staff at the Family Resource Center of the Roaring Fork Schools work as family liaisons in RFSD’s 12 traditional (excluding charter) schools and are available to support families in applying for additional resources and services.

Due to the high demand, UPK has found itself in a financial shortfall, which triggered the “depends on funding availability” caveat, requiring the state to adjust some students’ eligibility for full-day funding.

According to an Aug. 2 article by Chalkbeat Colorado titled “Colorado backtracks on full-time preschool for 11,000 kids with risk factors,” those eligibility adjustments have left “only about 13% of 4-year-olds participating in Colorado’s free preschool program being offered full-day classes — even though half risk starting kindergarten unprepared.”

As a result, on Aug. 17, six Colorado school districts sued the state over its UPK program. The lawsuit claims the state’s program is hurting kids with disabilities and breaking financial promises to parents and districts.

Despite UPK experiencing some snafus with its rollout, and even though the school year is underway, parents are encouraged to enroll their children in the program. The state has recently seen increased interest in enrollment and is trying to fill as many funded slots as possible.

A comprehensive article from The Denver Gazette on Aug. 26 offers four tips on navigating the application process. You can find it at

As they say, “the best-laid plans” are sometimes lacking when it comes to the practical application of those plans, and working out the UPK’s kinks will take patience and perseverance from all parties to get results for Colorado’s youngest students.

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