Toddlers on the ballot

Denver leaders plan to ask voters to extend, raise sales tax for preschool program

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, left, speaks with Monica Moore, center, and Marshall Fox and her daughter Kennedy June 11 at the Hope Center Children's Program in northeast Denver. The mayor announced a campaign to renew and raise a sales tax to fund the Denver Preschool Program.

Flanked by some of Denver’s most savvy politicos — and four-year-olds — Mayor Michael Hancock today announced plans to ask city voters in November to renew and raise a sales tax to fund the Denver Preschool Program.

The program, which Hancock and others said has become a model for other cities around the nation, uses tax dollars to fund the nonprofit that provides preschool tuition support for families and fund professional development and research to boost quality in city’s preschools.

Voters narrowly approved the 12 cent sales tax on every $100 dollars in 2006, and the tax is set to expire in 2016.

The ballot question that Denver City Council will likely refer to voters will ask them to raise the sales tax to 15 cents on every $100. If approved, the sales tax would extend for another 10 years.

“The Denver Preschool Program has proven that high quality early childhood education helps prepare Denver’s youngest students, no matter where they live or what color their skin to enter kindergarten ready to learn,” Hancock said. “It’s not just about closing the achievement gap, but eliminating it all together.”

The new revenue will be used to restore cuts to year-round preschool that were made during the recession, meet the growing demand for full- and extended-day programing, and keep up with the rising cost of tuition, according to a media release from Preschool Matters, the campaign supporting the pending ballot question.

The campaign, emboldened by early success of the Denver Preschool Program and a recovering economy, plans to build and mobilize a constituency of former families who have benefited from the program to ensure a higher margin of victory in November.

“We have families and children to point to that prove the program’s success,” Hancock said. “We have the data.”

An independent study paid for by the program found that 64 percent of Denver Public Schools third graders who had previously attended a preschool in the program scored proficient or advanced in reading on the state’s standardized tests. That was compared to 58 percent of third graders who did not attend preschool.

Preschoolers attending the Hope Children's Center in northeast Denver listen to speakers at a June 11 press conference announcing a campaign to ask voters to renew and raise a sales tax to fund the Denver Preschool Program.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Preschoolers attending the Hope Children’s Center in northeast Denver listen to speakers at a June 11 press conference announcing a campaign to ask voters to renew and raise a sales tax to fund the Denver Preschool Program.

Councilman Albus Brooks, whose own children have participated in the program, highlighted generally accepted research that proves a correlation between third grade reading scores and graduation rates. He said local research found Denver students who are reading at third grade have a 90 percent graduation rate.

Since the program launched in 2008, more than 34,000 students have graduated from a participating preschool, including 5,400 who graduated just a few weeks ago, said Jennifer Landrum, the program’s president and CEO.

As of April, about 65 percent of students attended a DPS school, Landrum said. The other 35 percent attend a variety of private programs.

Tuition support — which is based on family size and income, quality of the preschool, and type of program — accounted for 75 percent of the program’s expenses last year. Monthly payments, made directly to the preschools, range from about $36 a month to $485 a month, Landrum said in a subsequent interview. The average tuition credit during the 2013-14 school year was $290.

The program received $11.8 million in tax revenues last year.

More than half of the families that utilize the program have a combined household income of $30,000.

The Denver Preschool Program works with more than 250 different preschools that are either run by DPS or independently, including faith-based and family care organizations. Each school must participate in an annual quality review and improvement process, Landrum said. That’s led to nearly 200 more quality preschools, as defined by the program, in Denver today than when the program started in 2008.

No immediate opposition to the proposed 2014 question is known at this time.

However, the Anti-Defamation League opposed the 2006 ballot initiative because the program would provide tuition support toward faith-based organizations.

Supporters of the program said giving families a choice of the city’s best programs was paramount and religious waivers were provided.

The proposed ballot question’s first step toward November is to clear the city’s Health, Safety, Education and Services, which is chaired by Brooks. He said he expects the committee to hear the proposal within two weeks.

Chairing the campaign will be Brooks, President of the Denver Children’s Museum Mike Yankovich, and Chief Revenue Officer for Entravision Communications Corp. Mario Carrera.

A new floor

Colorado’s new minimum wage means raises for child care workers and tuition increases for parents

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Loveland's Teaching Tree Early Childhood Learning Center was one of the first two centers in the state to get a Level 5 rating in the Colorado Shines rating system.

Child care teachers and assistants absolutely deserve the raises that come from Colorado’s new minimum wage of $10.20 an hour, their bosses say, but the pay increases also mean that many providers will pass on the new expenses to tuition-paying parents already stretched thin by child care costs.

“I don’t know how much more parents can pay,” said Diane Price, who heads a nonprofit network of seven centers in Colorado Springs.

In some parts of the state, early childhood advocates also worry that the raises mandated by the minimum wage hike will cause some workers to lose public benefits by pushing their income just above the eligibility threshold — making it harder, not easier to make ends meet.

In a field working to professionalize its ranks, pay its workers more, and raise awareness about the educational and economic value of quality child care, many observers say the minimum wage increase is a step in the right direction.

“It’s an important move,” said Christi Chadwick, director of the “Transforming the Early Childhood Workforce” project at the nonprofit Early Milestones Colorado. “The thing I struggle with is we’re still not getting people out of poverty and paying them on par with the public school system.”

Price, the president and CEO of Early Connections Learning Centers, said, “Shame on us that we even have to have this discussion that early educators are in a category that pays minimum wage.”

The latest minimum wage increase, which took effect Jan. 1, is the second of four annual increases mandated by a ballot measure approved by Colorado voters in 2016. The last step of the phase-in process will boost the minimum wage to $12 in 2020.

Colorado is among 29 states — most in the northeast and west — that have set a minimum wage higher than the federal rate of $7.25 an hour, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Child care providers here say advance planning and clear communication with parents have helped them incorporate raises into their budgets.

Price, who raised tuition slightly at her centers last August, said she anticipates a budget hit of about $600,000 over the four-year phase-in period.

But that’s not just because her lowest paid staff members are getting raises to comply with the minimum wage law. Like many other child care directors, she’s giving raises across the board out of fairness to veteran employees.

Price said she didn’t want entry-level employees to catch up with those who already hav a Child Development Associate credential or an associate’s degree.

Heather Griffith, who leads the for-profit Young Peoples Learning Center in Fort Collins, is taking the same approach. Her whole staff, except two brand new employees, have received raises.

She’s already sent out a letter notifying parents that tuition will go up 6.5 percent on February 1 – that’s an additional $16 a week for a full-time preschool slot. It’s the second of three tuition hikes Griffith will institute during the minimum wage phase-in period.

While the higher costs are hard on parents, “it’s a lot tougher for these teachers to survive on non-livable wages,” Griffith said. “I’m 100 percent in support of this minimum wage hike.”

Griffith hasn’t gotten much pushback over the impending tuition increase. The thriving economy helps. Also, she said, parents like the care her centers provide and wouldn’t be able to find it for much less unless they switched to unlicensed care, which is mostly unregulated.

Anne Lance, who heads the non-profit Teaching Tree Early Childhood Learning Center in northern Colorado, said she began planning — and frontloading — wage increases for all staff shortly after the 2016 ballot measure passed.
Currently, her entry-level teaching assistants start at $10.50 an hour even though she’s only required to pay $10.20.

“I had to get way ahead of the game … so in a couple years when it gets closer to that $12, it’s not going to kill me,” said Lance, who operates one center in Loveland and one in Fort Collins.

While the center’s two sites serve many low-income children who qualify for state child care subsidies or state-funded preschool slots, there are some tuition-paying families in the mix, too.

It’s those parents who may feel the sting of the minimum wage increases over the next couple years. Lance said she’ll keep her tuition increases to a modest 3 percent this year, but may have to jump up to 5 percent in 2019 and 2020.

On average, lead teachers with several years of experience at Teaching Tree make about $13.50 an hour. While that’s above the minimum wage, it’s not much to live on for employees on their own or those who are single parents, Lance said.

In Colorado, about one-third of child care teachers qualify for some kind of public assistance to cover housing, food, health insurance, or child care costs, according to a 2017 survey of child care workers in the state.

Chadwick, of Early Milestones, said during visits last fall to the San Luis Valley and southeastern Colorado, early childhood leaders explained that some child care workers were quitting their jobs due to fears they would lose government benefits when minimum wage-related raises took effect.

To alleviate such concerns and make child care a profession that pays a living wage, more substantial raises are needed. But Chadwick and other leaders don’t expect further funding to come from a state-level effort.

Instead, they say it will be locally-funded initiatives — already underway in some Colorado communities — that pick up the slack.

“We have to pass things like mill levies and taxes that support early childhood,” said Griffith, of Young Peoples Learning Center. “We have to do it. We have to say yes to these things if what we want is a community that has educated kids ready to go into kindergarten.”

Early childhood literacy

How to make a good reader? Combine in-school tutoring with hundreds of books for toddlers and babies

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post
Fourth graders at College View Elementary in Denver.

A new literacy program for children from babies to third grade will focus on tutoring students and encouraging reading at an early age as it works with 100 families in the Munger Elementary-Middle School area.

The 3-year pilot program will combine the resources of 80 volunteers, the Munger school staff, and Brilliant Detroit, a social service organization. Brilliant Detroit will house a national program called Raising a Reader, which will ensure that the families receive as many as 100 books each over the next three years to read to babies and toddlers.

“We believe the city of Detroit is turning around,” said former state Supreme Court justice Maura Corrigan, who is spearheading the program. “But we understand that Detroit cannot turn around effectively if the schools don’t turn around, and that can’t happen unless the children learn to read.”

The program is part of a state-wide push to help more children learn to read before a new state law takes effect in 2020 that will force schools to hold back third-graders who aren’t reading at grade level. This year, fewer than 10 percent of Detroit students met that grade-level threshold.

Announced today, the program launches in January and has more than $20,000 in funding.

Munger Principal Donnell Burroughs said students who received the lowest reading test scores will likely be the ones who receive tutoring.

“Here at Munger we want our students to continue to grow,” Burroughs said. “We will identify certain families and students from preschool to third grade and they’ll work with individual tutors who come into the school every day.”

Students will work with a tutor in groups of three for 40 minutes a day.

Lt. Gov. Brian Calley described another benefit of the program: helping students with disabilities.

“Perhaps an unintended consequence of the work that’s happening here is we can identify developmental delays and disabilities earlier for intervention.”

Calley, whose daughter has autism, is an advocate for people with disabilities. Studies have shown that early intervention improves outcomes.  

“We still have so far to go there,” he added. “This is a reading initiative, but it’s gonna have benefits beyond reading.”

Special education has been a pressing concern for education advocates in the state. The Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren issued a list of recommendations for ways to improve Detroit schools in early December. Among them was a priority to fully fund special education.

Plans to continue or expand the program are unclear, and depend on the pilot’s success. The effort is supported by 15 local and state partners, including Gov. Rick Snyder and Raising a Reader.