Help wanted: Leader for Colorado’s early childhood department

A young boy sitting in front of a piece of paper dips his brush in paint while at a preschool class.
The executive director of Colorado’s new early childhood department will be paid $155,000 to $170,000. (Emily Elconin for Chalkbeat)

Colorado has kicked off its search for an executive director to lead its new Department of Early Childhood, a cabinet-level agency that will house programs that currently reside in the state’s education and human services departments. 

The governor’s office seems to be in a hurry to fill the role, with the job posted last week and the application window closing Feb. 23. The salary range is $155,000 to $170,000.

The person selected for the role will have a big, bumpy job ahead, leading the launch of the new agency this summer and preparing for a major expansion of state-funded preschool in 2023. Unlike the leader of other state agencies, such as the Colorado Department of Education, the early childhood department director, not a board, will have the authority to make rules.

Many advocates have heralded the creation of the new department, saying it will elevate the importance of early childhood in the state. But some observers feel trepidation or impatience as they wonder how the department will efficiently weave together a host of siloed programs, funding streams, and systems into a coherent whole. 

One of the department’s biggest tasks will be the launch of tuition-free preschool for 4-year-olds statewide in the fall of 2023 — one of Gov. Jared Polis’ top priorities. The program, made possible by a voter-approved nicotine tax, could triple the number of children in Colorado’s public preschool classrooms. 

The department will also house child care licensing, home visiting, early childhood mental health, and child abuse prevention programs.

The agency was supposed to officially launch on July 1. A bill headed to the governor’s desk moves up the start date to this month and allows the state to hire an executive director and other key employees now. 

Democrats support the change, arguing the state needs to fill key leadership roles and spend money to get the agency off on the right foot. Republicans raised concerns, though, that the timeline is too rushed, with many unanswered questions about how the new department will take over existing programs. The bill easily passed both chambers of the legislature on largely party-line votes.

Ann Schimke is a senior reporter at Chalkbeat, covering early childhood issues and early literacy. Contact Ann at aschimke@chalkbeat.org.

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