Colorado universal preschool standards set low bar, experts say

A preschool boy with a rainbow on his shirt walks past a green and red outdoor play structure.
Colorado’s universal preschool program launched last month, but rules on quality won’t take effect until next year. (Ann Schimke / Chalkbeat)
Inside Colorado's free preschool initiative

Sign up for Chalkbeat’s free monthly newsletter The Starting Line to keep up with news about early childhood education.

Colorado’s proposed rules on preschool quality set a low bar, could hurt kids, and threaten to leave the state with one of the nation’s weakest public preschool programs, some experts say.

The draft standards say class sizes will be governed by current licensing rules, which means preschools can have up to 24 4–year-olds in each classroom. The standards also don’t address what degrees or credentials teachers must have. These are among the red flags cited by leaders at the National Institute for Early Education Research, who reviewed the draft rules at Chalkbeat’s request.

“It’s very difficult once you create a low-quality system to work your way out of that, because you create a constituency for it,” said W. Steven Barnett, senior co-director of the institute, which is housed at Rutgers University.

Colorado’s proposed quality rules, which will take effect in fall 2024, are already coming too late for the first class of universal preschoolers — about 38,000 4-year-olds and 9,000 3-year-olds so far this fall. While some of those children may be in top-rated preschools that keep class sizes small, use strong curriculum, and employ highly qualified teachers, many are attending programs that meet only basic health and safety standards.

This runs counter to what state leaders promised after the passage of a nicotine tax in 2020 to help fund tuition-free preschool for 4-year-olds statewide. They said the new program would provide the kind of high-quality preschool that research shows has positive short- and long-term impacts on children.

But now, it’s unclear whether the state will make good on that pledge — and if so, how long it will take.

“In my opinion, this is stuff they should have been nailing down three years ago,” said Meg Franko, director of early childhood initiatives at the University of Denver’s Butler Institute for Families. “It’s frustrating that so much is happening at the last minute.”

She sees some bright spots in the proposed standards, including that preschools would be required to have an on-site evaluation by the state or another approved evaluator every three years. She also said the standards include features that will bring more consistency so that “parents can feel like they’re getting a similar product no matter where they go.” These include requirements for preschools to have a curriculum, promote child health, and engage with families.

“I don’t think this totally solves that problem, but I think it starts to help with it,” she said.

Become a Chalkbeat sponsor

State officials say they are collecting feedback on the proposed quality rules through at least Sept. 22 and that the standards could change before they are adopted in January.

Separate rules for preschool teacher qualifications will take effect in fall 2025, though state officials have already confirmed that teachers will not need a bachelor’s degree as that is enshrined in state law. Those standards are still in the concept phase and no date has been set for their release.

Ian McKenzie, a spokesman for the Colorado Department of Early Childhood, which is running the universal preschool program, said in an email that the draft standards are based on state and national best practices and feedback from more than 670 Coloradans.

He said the goal was to strike a balance between designing an accessible system that supports the work preschool providers are already doing and lifting them to the next level of quality.

Given that Colorado has prioritized offering universal preschool in various settings — public schools, private preschools, and state-licensed homes — McKenzie said the state wouldn’t be able to lower staffing ratios beyond what’s currently allowed without hurting private providers, which are small businesses. State child care rules require at least one staff member for every 12 preschoolers, along with a 24-student cap.

Low-quality preschool is bad for kids

Colorado’s universal preschool program, which offers 10 to 30 hours of class time a week at no cost to families, appears likely to fall short on most of the 10 quality benchmarks used by the research institute at Rutgers. The institute rates state preschool programs annually using its quality checklist. States like Alabama, Mississippi, and Hawaii meet all 10 benchmarks.

Institute officials estimated that Colorado could meet up to four benchmarks — based on the state’s proposed quality standards — but said they’d need additional information from the state to confirm compliance.

Even if Colorado’s universal preschool program meets four benchmarks — the same number its previous smaller state-funded preschool met — it’s a lackluster showing for a state that touted high-quality preschool for all.

McKenzie said the state is addressing the institute’s push for quality in other ways — for example, through early childhood coaching initiatives — outside of the preschool quality standards.

The institute’s benchmarks are meant to guide state preschool policy, not to gauge quality at individual preschools. Colorado has its own five-level rating system for preschool and child care providers, known as Colorado Shines, but there’s no requirement, including for universal preschool providers, to advance beyond the lowest Level 1 rating, which simply means a program meets state licensing standards.

Become a Chalkbeat sponsor

Eighty percent of Colorado’s universal preschool providers have one of the lowest two state ratings. The other 20% have one of the top three ratings, designations considered high-quality.

Barnett said low-quality classrooms can negatively impact children long term, effects seen in research on early childhood programs in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Quebec.

He said of Quebec’s child care program, “When they went universal, they went for cheap so they could give it to everybody. Fifteen years later, kids were doing worse in school. They were more likely to be involved in crime and delinquency.”

“In particular, middle income kids were induced out of relatively good home or out-of-home programs into worse programs because they were free,” Barnett said. “You could see this happening in Colorado.”

Advocates differ on Colorado’s proposed quality standards

Lauren Corboy, an early childhood analyst for the advocacy group Colorado Children’s Campaign, described the state’s quality standards draft as “really strong” and said it “hits on the most important elements that make a quality program.”

For example, the standards say preschool should be developmentally appropriate and mentions the importance of play, she said.

The research institute’s 10 benchmarks represent only one of a variety of ways to measure preschool quality, Corboy said. “The goal is not to pick one set [of standards] and 100% align.”

Asked about potential class sizes of 24 preschoolers — as is allowed currently and in the draft standards — she said the Campaign has not yet developed talking points on that topic.

Rebecca Armentrout, executive director of Nebula Early Childhood Collaborative, a nonprofit that provides early childhood coaching and advocacy, said the state’s proposed preschool standards are vague.

For example, she said the standards call for the creation of a resource bank that includes “approved and vetted” curriculum, but it’s not clear what curriculum will be acceptable, who will vet the curriculum, and whether universal preschool providers will get funding to replace curriculum that doesn’t make the cut.

Become a Chalkbeat sponsor

Like other early childhood advocates and leaders, including a group of school districts that recently sued the state over universal preschool, Armentrout worries there’s not enough money to properly run the new program.

She also expressed frustration over the analogy that state officials have repeated countless times through the universal preschool planning process.

“How offensive it’s been to hear this entire time, ‘We’re building the plane as we fly it.” said Armentrout. “Why would we trust these quality standards when we’ve heard that so many times?”

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


The Latest

The Renaissance initiative was supposed to turn around 10% of Philadelphia’s low-performing district schools by ceding them to charter organizations. After 14 years, the program has faded into the background.

A bill at the Indiana Statehouse that aims to hold back more students who fail the state’s reading exam, is advancing. Here’s what its impact could be.

School districts across the state have grappled with a shortage of teachers.

Not everything has been smooth, but staff and parents say the good outweighs the hard.

During Tuesday’s budget address, Murphy proposed more money for K-12 public schools, marking the largest investment to schools in the state’s history.

Principals are the leaders of their schools and staff. But in Chicago, multiple entities have power over principals — and soon, an elected school board and a principals union could impact how school leaders work.