With universal preschool, can Colorado boost workforce pay?

A preschool teacher in a white flowery dress looks at a little girl sitting next to her who is also smiling.
Colorado officials say they’ll begin the process of setting the funding formula for universal preschool in July. (Carl Glenn Payne II for Chalkbeat)

Chrissy Simmons, the director of a child care center in the western Colorado city of Montrose, was one of the presenters talking about career paths at a local high school this spring. 

Students were visibly excited when speakers discussed potential earnings for jobs in welding and health care — wages of $20, $30, even $50 an hour. There were “oohs and aahs,” she recalled. 

But when Simmons talked about what early childhood teachers make, the classroom was still. 

“Just no sounds, just silence,” she said. 

That non-reaction may sum up the challenge as Colorado prepares for a major expansion of state-funded preschool. The expansion’s success hinges on the willingness of thousands of teachers and aides to commit to a notoriously low-paying field already plagued by staff shortages. State leaders in charge of the effort have promised that the universal preschool workforce will earn a living wage — a tantalizing pledge, but also hard to imagine in a state where the median preschool teacher wage is around $15.25 an hour

The state’s new preschool program, funded partly with a voter-approved nicotine tax, will offer 10 hours a week of tuition-free preschool to 4-year-olds starting in the fall of 2023. Children with the greatest needs will be eligible for more and families will be able to choose preschool classrooms inside schools, churches, child care centers, or licensed homes.

Many preschool providers and early childhood advocates say they’re excited about the prospect of a system of high-quality preschool that pays providers fairly and equitably. At the same time, some worry that lead time is running short, unanswered questions are piling up, and there won’t be enough money to realize the program’s lofty goals.

“It’s very hush-hush. Nothing’s even been hinted at how that’s going to work,” said Deb Hartman, the director of a Trinidad child care center managed by the South Central Council of Governments. 

Terry Curtis, director of Little Folks Preschool and Daycare in the tiny town of Merino in eastern Colorado, said, “It’s very difficult to say, ‘Yay, I’m going to be able to up my wages,’ when I don’t know what we’re going to be paid” by the state.

The center’s highest paid preschool teacher, a seasoned veteran, currently earns $15 an hour. 

“Somebody in early childhood that will stick with you for 27 years deserves a whole lot more,” she said.

All over the map

Preschool teacher pay varies wildly in Colorado — from around $13 to $70 an hour, depending on the region, setting, and employee credentials. 

Typically, school districts, which often require preschool teachers to have bachelor’s degrees and state teaching licenses, pay better than community-based providers, where qualifications are generally lower. But there’s still lots of variation, according to a Chalkbeat survey of preschool teacher wages in nine school districts and five community programs across the state.

Median pay is $18.74 an hour in the Mesa County Valley district based in Grand Junction compared to $50.47 in the Boulder Valley district. In Westminster Public Schools, a small district north of Denver that employs both licensed and unlicensed preschool teachers, the median wage for unlicensed teachers is about $25 an hour, compared to $42 an hour for licensed teachers. 

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At many private preschool providers, teacher pay starts a few dollars above the state’s minimum wage of $12.56 an hour. 

Experts say industry wages are low generally because child care, which includes preschool, is a failed business model — with low worker pay essentially subsidizing the cost of care because otherwise families couldn’t afford it. 

“We’re willing as a society to subsidize a lot of industries that on their own just aren’t going to thrive,” said Meg Franko, founder of the early childhood research and evaluation firm ECE Insights. “Early care and education is one of those … if we really want it to work effectively, we need to put more money into it.”

A preschool teacher’s path

Amy DeFusco is a special education preschool teacher in the Denver district who makes around $70,000 a year. She has a bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees, and a state teaching license. She works alongside two teacher aides — also known as paraprofessionals — in a classroom that serves both preschoolers with disabilities and general education students. 

DeFusco has come a long way since she started in the field about a decade ago — in terms of wages and expertise. She remembers the excitement she felt upon landing a $15-an-hour job at a child care center after graduating from college with a degree in psychology. She also remembers some of her early missteps. She once chased a screaming, crying toddler around a classroom while grabbing at the markers the little girl was throwing.

“I was getting into a battle of the wills with a 2-year-old, who, come to find out, had not been sleeping for several days because they were moving,” she said.  

Now, years later, DeFusco ticks off all the things she could have done to de-escalate or even prevent the meltdown. Essentially, it’s a list of skills that good early childhood teachers have: The ability to stay calm, spot problems before they spiral, understand what children are communicating, and help them handle emotions. 

DeFusco said a lot of planning and thought goes into working in the field and teachers do it because they love working with kids. 

But love doesn’t pay the rent, she said. “Especially in Denver.”

Living wage estimates – the amount an individual must earn to support herself and her family – vary by region and family size. In the Denver metro area, it’s just over $27 an hour for each of two working adults in a family with two children, according to a living wage calculator from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The number is a bit lower in other parts of the state. For a single parent of two children, the required hourly wage grows to more than $40 an hour in most parts of the state. 

DeFusco said she’s hopeful that the state’s universal preschool program will increase pay for preschool workers like the two paraprofessionals in her classroom. One has many years of experience.

That co-worker, DeFusco said, “could make more at Walmart and we are not respecting her in her dedication to the profession and to the district.” 

How much per preschool seat?

Colorado’s universal preschool funding formula won’t be based on the K-12 school finance formula, as is the case with the state’s existing preschool program. That program, which serves children from low-income families or with other risk factors, paid providers $4,500 per seat on average in 2021-22 — half the amount provided for K-12 students. 

Before the pandemic, more than 23,000 Colorado students were enrolled in state-funded preschool. With the launch of universal preschool, that number is expected to double or triple. (Carl Glenn Payne II for Chalkbeat)

Instead of using the K-12 funding formula as a foundation for universal preschool rates, state leaders want to calculate the actual cost of high-quality care for preschoolers. The idea is that since 4-year-olds are more expensive to educate than older students — they require smaller class sizes, lower student-teacher ratios, and different safety standards — the state’s per-pupil preschool spending should reflect that. The formula is also expected to take into account extra costs associated with educating preschoolers with unique needs, for example those from low-income families or who are English learners. 

Lots of preschool providers and advocates agree with the cost-of-care rationale, but wonder how the state will define high quality and calculate the cost of providing it.

Scott Bright, who leads ABC Child Development Centers in Greeley, said he’s glad state officials are separating the preschool formula from the K-12 formula, but worries it won’t yield a significantly higher per-seat rate.

“I know that there’s a limited amount of funds,” he said. “I would be willing to wager [it’s] going to come in at the $4,500 to $5,000 number.” 

Financial estimates indicate the state could have $300 million to spend on universal preschool in its inaugural year. That’s more than double the $137 million state analysts predict will go toward the existing preschool program this coming school year. 

But enrollment increases expected under universal preschool could make it hard to significantly increase per-pupil rates or teacher pay. Before the pandemic, more than 23,000 Colorado students were enrolled in state-funded preschool. That number could eventually triple depending on how many families want a universal preschool spot.

Franko, of ECE Insights, said Washington, D.C., is an example of a place that has invested substantial money into public preschool. The city, which pays preschool teachers the same as elementary teachers, was recently ranked No. 1 in the nation for preschool access and spending, by the National Institute for Early Education Research, which evaluates state preschool policies annually

“If you choose to really try to pay … early educators what they’re worth and really try to reimburse at the true cost of quality care, it doesn’t look like $3,000 to $4,000 a year, it looks like $14,000 a year,” she said. 

While many providers are hopeful that Colorado’s universal preschool program will raise the employee wage floor, they say its impact could be limited for child care providers who enroll more than just 4-year-old preschoolers. 

“It’ll help, but then it’s only 10 hours of those 4-year-olds’ schedule,” said Simmons, who leads Maslow Academy in Montrose. “They do have to start somewhere, to take a small bite out of it.”   

What’s next?

A spokesman for Gov. Jared Polis’ office said the process for determining the universal preschool rate will begin in July once Colorado’s new Department of Early Childhood becomes “operational.” The state will consult with the early childhood community, contract with financial experts, and go through the state’s rule-making process, which includes a public comment period, the spokesman said via email. 

Melissa Mares, the director of early childhood initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign, said, “One of the keys to setting rates is thinking about what quality means and thinking about it more holistically than we have in the past.” 

One common, but controversial preschool quality metric requires teachers to have bachelor’s degrees, but Mares said many early childhood teachers can’t afford them.

Plus, employees who find a way to earn a bachelor’s degree often leave private programs anyway — landing in school districts where higher pay is often part of union contracts.

“For rural Colorado, if we have someone get a four-year degree, they’re going to go to a big city,” said Curtis, who runs Little Folks, which has one of the state’s top quality ratings.

Curtis, who will be 63 this year, has an associate degree, helped design an early childhood credential program, and has 43 years of experience in the field. 

“I don’t think just because you get a bachelor’s, that makes you the best of the best,“ she said.  

But Bright, of ABC Child Development, said some early childhood teachers truly have little training, especially with recent changes that lowered the bar for early childhood teachers. He said state rules now allow him to put a teacher in the classroom after two days of online classes and three days of classroom observation. 

“How much should I pay that person that just walked out of a convenience store and said, ‘I love kids’?” he asked.   

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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