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Polis suggests some parents who want universal pre-K are just looking for child care

More than 9,000 families that applied for full-time universal preschool found out they did not qualify.

DENVER — A key campaign promise by Gov. Jared Polis (D) is taxpayer-funded preschool.

Parents can apply for their four-year-old to get half-day state-funded preschool. Families who met certain qualifying factors qualified for full-day funding.

Under the new universal preschool program, 38,740 preschoolers have been matched with a school through the state’s new portal. Last year, before the state started funding half-day preschool for all, there were 20,928 children enrolled.

Families who identified as low-income and met one other qualifying factor, of which there were 3,774, received full-day preschool funding. The other qualifying factors included:

  • Individualized Education Program (IEP)
  • Homelessness
  • Dual language learner
  • Foster/Kinship care

There were 9,150 families who listed one qualifying factor, and those are the families that are not getting full-day funding. They were notified about that decision in a letter in late July.

On Wednesday, Polis visited Coyote Creek Elementary School in Highlands Ranch and sat down with Next with Kyle Clark to talk about the rollout of universal preschool.

Marshall Zelinger: “Universal Preschool has matched almost 40,000, that's the most recent number I had. That's twice as many preschoolers as last year under the former Colorado Preschool Program. How much of that do you take credit for? How much of that is voters passing the ballot issue that taxed tobacco to give more money for preschool?”

Polis: “Well, it's all of those. I mean, what's driving the increased demand is that it's now a free half-day preschool, universal for everybody. So, you know, you have people who couldn't afford it, who now can enjoy preschool, but also people who are on the margins who said, ‘I could afford it, but I'd rather use the money, you know, for something else.’ Now, preschool, every kid will get that preparation for success across our state, so it's not a huge surprise to me that demand is roughly doubled.”

Full interview: Polis responds to grievances with his universal preschool program

Zelinger: “Late last month, 9,100 parents with qualifying factors were told there wasn't enough money for them to get full-day funding. Several parents, since, have told me that to keep their full-day spot, parents of qualifying factor students, they may have to pay $500, $800 or $1,000 a month. So, I have a couple of questions about this. The first, why weren't 9,100 parents given more than a couple of weeks’ notice before school started?”

Polis: “Well, I wish that a lot of the documents were echoed the same points I made. This is a half-day universal preschool program. That's what the voters approved. It's also developmentally appropriate. Kids benefit the most in that 15-to-20-hour range. We can also get in the discussion of child care versus school. So again, think of first and second grade, your kid is there till three in school, you may need till 5:30, till you can pick them up, you may need child care that's much less expensive. So, there's a difference between preschool and child care. We are funding high quality preschool.

Voters approved a minimum of 10 hours universal [preschool]. I pushed, pushed, pushed, we got up to 15 [hours] in our first year. I want to get to 18 [hours]. That's still a half-day program, but it's more robust. Eighteen hours is my goal over the next few years, universal preschool for everybody.”

Zelinger: “Let's talk about 10 [hours] versus 15 [hours]. Because like you said, voters only approved 10 [hours].

Polis: “At least 10.”

Zelinger: “And you’ve push for 15, which is -- 15 hours is half-day preschool.”

Polis: “That's right.”

Zelinger: “You've committed to that whether you're low income or well off. That appears to have been at the expense of needy families who thought they might be getting full-day preschool. Was that a mistake?”

Polis: “I view preschool much like I view first grade, second grade, third grade, fourth grade. We don't give more fourth grade hours to low-income families. We give a universal experience, public education is something that that unites us, right? And whether you're making a million dollars a year, or you're unemployed, your kid can go to fourth grade for free in our state. I view half-day preschool the same way.”

Zelinger: “Why do you think all these parents thought they were getting full-day. But here you're sitting, telling me, ‘we were only saying half-day the whole time?’”

Polis: “Well, look, there were kids that had free preschool before we passed the initiative. And so, now that we are funding that, there is the availability of some full-day funding for some of the most at-risk families.”

Zelinger: “Based on the parents I've talked with, they believe you've over promised and under delivered, particularly on the full-day part. Do you have a responsibility to fix any of this now? Or are you hands off and say, ‘let's let another cycle go through and see how that works?’”

Polis: “In retrospect, maybe it would have been better to plaster everywhere half-day universal preschool, half-day universal preschool. Certainly, what I've always talked about is universal preschool. The truth is, there's not, and I just talked to, for instance, the principal here, there's nothing even close to the space for full-day preschool.

If you're talking about shifting the state to that, first of all, you'd have to find a dedicated funding source like we did for half-day, and that would be a real part of the discussion. But secondly, you'd have to deal with construction and capital, and it wouldn't be a one-year thing, it would be a multi-year thing.

The biggest dread and nightmare I had, Marshall, if you'd asked me a year ago, was that we would have parents with nowhere to send their kid because there wasn't enough space.”

The preschool selection process required parents to choose their top five preschools and a computer algorithm would match a student with a school. Polis said that 78% of preschoolers were matched with their parents first choice.

Zelinger: “I'm going to use a word that Democrats might think is dirty: vouchers. Why not give the parents the choice? You said 78% got their choice. But that also means one-in-five didn't, so why not give the parents the choice to go to whatever school they want, and then allow them to take that state money with them to that school.”

Polis: “That is basically how this works, Marshall. But when you have public funding, you have this element of we want fairness rather than favoritism. Who gets the coveted slots, right? So. if there's 20 slots and 30 people want them, we want to have a lottery. We say you just have to have it random, and the software does it randomly. So, rather than, sort of, who knew who and who secretly signed up by a certain date, it's just fair in that anybody can sign up. And then there's a lottery to get in.”

Zelinger: You mentioned your 18-hour promise earlier in this conversation. It’s at least 10 hours, you’ve done 15 [hours] and you want to a make a push for 18 [hours].”

Polis: “One of your reports said that I want to get there next year. I certainly do. But my goal, by the way, is by the end of my term to get to 18 hours. So, if it takes me two years to get there, I don't want you to say, ‘he's there a year late.’ I'm going to get there in the next three years.”

Zelinger: “I appreciate that fact check on me. If you get to 18 [hours], should the state be prioritizing more hours, even for those who are well off, before it can meet the needs of the needy families that are looking for full-day?”

Polis: “I look at the entire continuum of preschool through 12th grade education, as this is something for everybody. This has societal value. Because whether you make a million dollars or you're unemployed, you get first grade, you get second grade, you get full day kindergarten, and yes, you get half day preschool. The biggest benefit from preschool, that the studies show, is developmentally appropriate in that 15-to-20-hour range.

Many parents, frankly, have demand for half-day, I get it, other parents have demand for full-day, other parents might want half-day preschool, but they need a child care alternative that gets them to 5:30. And frankly, even if you have full-day preschool, you still need a child care alternative. Because if you can't pick them up at three, you need to pick them up at 5:30, you still have a two-hour gap. So, I just want to differentiate those and say we're focused on pedagogy, the instruction, the academic achievement, the benefits of preschool. We also care a lot about helping families manage their lives and meet their needs for child care, which again, is done in a different way.”

Zelinger: “I just want to be clear that I'm not misunderstanding. The families that are saying they thought they qualified for full-day preschool. Do you believe they're just seeking child care? And their debate isn't ‘Oh man, I missed out on the state funding,’ it's, ‘Oh man, I missed out on free child care?”

Polis: “Well, it's a good question. So, you should ask them? Are you saying you want to pick your kid up at 2:30? Or five, right? If they say 2:30, then they're in it for the full-day preschool because they value that academic experience. If they're saying five, because I work and I can't pick up my kid until five, they need a child care solution. So, I'm sure it's some of both, and you probably need to pose that question to individuals. But I can assure you as somebody who's reviewed the scientific data and the literature, the biggest academic benefit from preschool is in that 15-to-20-hour range.”

Zelinger: “What's your bar for saying universal preschool is successful? And are we there right now?” 

Polis: “Is it successful its first year? Yes, in the sense that parents were able to find preschools, again, my biggest worry a year ago, is there'll be all these parents with kids and there will be no available preschool slots.

But the real test, Marshall, will be in three or four years, when we look at the increased academic achievement from kids that had quality preschool, and full-day kindergarten.

As we look at increased academic achievement and success for third and fourth and fifth and sixth graders a few years down the line, we will show tremendous benefit from kids that have had universal preschool and kindergarten. So again, let's look at that and make sure that we're seeing the benefits that we expect in terms of increased academic and increased academic achievement as these kids grow up.”

SUGGESTED VIDEOS: Full Episodes of Next with Kyle Clark

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