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News brief with Chalkbeat: State rolls back universal preschool hours for 11,000 at-risk children

A boy plays at the recently renovated Y Academy Preschool in southwest Denver, one of hundreds of Colorado preschools that will offer universal preschool in the fall.
Ann Schimke
A boy plays at the recently renovated Y Academy Preschool in southwest Denver. It's one of hundreds of Colorado preschools that will offer universal preschool in the fall.

Occasionally, we catch up with our colleagues at Chalkbeat about the education stories they're following. This time, Colorado Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer joined us for an update on the state’s universal Pre-K program.

State officials are rolling back some of the new preschool program’s offerings, partially due to an overwhelming demand from Colorado families.

“The state is required to cover 10 hours (per week) of preschool for every child in the year before kindergarten. These are mostly four-year-olds,” Meltzer told KUNC. “But when they set up the program design, they decided to expand that to 15 hours for every child. And then they strongly suggested to families that if (their children) had certain risk factors – like if their parents earn less than a certain amount of money or if they were still learning English – that they would get 30 hours a week of tuition-free preschool.”

However, the popularity of the state program quickly outpaced available funds. Now, the state has rolled back full-time coverage for 11,000 students with risk factors.

Meltzer said this change came as a surprise to officials.

“Partly, they were looking at other states that had launched universal preschool - that in the first year, there wasn't typically full participation. And so they were thinking, ‘maybe not as many people will sign up and we'll be able to spread the money further,’" Meltzer said. "At the same time, if you go back into the legislative record, we had legislative budget staff saying, ‘Hey, if our projections are off even a little bit, that's going to cause a problem.’”

Nevertheless, Gov. Jared Polis’ office has been heavily invested in the universal Pre-K program.

“They put their own money into marketing because they really wanted to get the word out,” Meltzer said of the governor's office. “And it turned out that they were successful in recruiting more families than was budgeted for.”

Families who are lower income or have other risk factors and are seeing their free preschool hours limited still have options. Meltzer said Aurora and Westminster school districts will be using money from their own budgets to supplement the state funding. Some families can also apply for additional child care subsidies.

“Families should definitely be looking at CCCAP (Colorado Child Care Assistance Program) and Head Start,” Meltzer said. “They should be looking (to see) if their employer offers any child care benefits and trying to stack those benefits as best they can to get the hours that they need.”

As a reporter and host for KUNC, I follow the local stories of the day while also guiding KUNC listeners through NPR's wider-scope coverage. It's an honor and a privilege to help our audience start their day informed and entertained.
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