Price point

In one of the worst states for preschool costs, DPS does better than average—even with hikes

While middle- and upper-income parents will see preschool tuition hikes at programs housed in Denver Public Schools next year, they’ll still be paying less on average than other Colorado parents.

Even with the increases approved by the school board Thursday, middle-income families will pay $2,000-$3,700 annually for full-day preschool next year.

“Even with the added cost, it’s pretty reasonable,” said Cheryl Caldwell, the district’s director of early childhood education.

In contrast, the Colorado average for full-day care for four-year-olds is $9,900 a year. That figure earned the state a ranking of seventh for least affordable care in a report released earlier this month by the organization Child Care Aware of America.

While the $9,900 rate is for 12 months of care compared to nine months for the district’s preschool program, DPS is still proportionally cheaper for the vast majority of families. Only the highest-income DPS families as well as out-of-district families will pay similar or higher preschool tuition once the increases take effect.

Caldwell said with districtwide budget cuts anticipated next year, the preschool rate increase will help maintain the program.

Taran Schneider, the director of childcare resource and referral at Qualistar Colorado, said childcare here is often more expensive than public college tuition.

Top 10 least affordable states for four-year-old care

  • 1. New York
  • 2. Missouri
  • 3. Vermont
  • 4. Oregon
  • 5. Minnesota
  • 6. Nevada
  • 7. Colorado
  • 8. Massachusetts
  • 9. Wisconsin
  • 10. Washington

And it’s not just a problem for low-income parents. It can eat up the budget in middle- and upper-income households as well.

“It’s not something that’s easy for anyone,” said Schneider.

While some states and school districts provide universal free preschool, Colorado takes a different approach. The state-funded Colorado Preschool Program provides more than 20,000 free half-day slots for at-risk students, but families on the wait list or those who don’t qualify typically pay for care.

The Child Care Aware report found that care for 4-year-olds in Colorado consumed about 11 percent of the median income for married couples and 35 percent for single parents.

Some private childcare centers cost $1,200 to $1,400 a month—an annual hit of nearly $17,000.

Two voter-approved ballot initiatives have fueled the overall affordability of Denver’s district-based preschool. One is a property tax that lends support to the district’s preschool program and the other is a sales tax that supports preschool subsidies for four-year-olds through the Denver Preschool Program.

“We’re really lucky that Denver voters have supported the Denver Preschool Program and the mill levy to make preschool available for such a large number of students who need services,” said Caldwell.

The district is also unique for its sliding scale tuition schedule. Nearly three-quarters of the district’s 5,900 preschoolers attend for free or a small monthly fee because their families fall into the lowest two of six income brackets. There will be no tuition increase for those two groups next year.

Preschool tuition at schools in nearby districts is fairly comparable to the middle tiers of DPS’ sliding scale. In Jeffco public schools, the monthly rate for full-day preschool is $700-800 depending on the length of the school day.

In Aurora where just there are just 12 tuition-paying students among the district’s 2,200 preschoolers, the rate is $350 a month for a half-day program.

“It’s really been the goal to have our families served with the free programming,” said Suzanne Rougier, the district’s director of early childhood education.

Preschool expansion

Could a new universal preschool program in a Colorado resort community help propel a statewide effort?

PHOTO: Jamie Cotten, Special to The Denver Post
Josiah Berg, 4, paints a picture at Mile High Montessori, one of more than 250 Denver preschools that are part of the Denver Preschool Program.

Back in 2006, Denver voters passed a sales tax to help the families of 4-year-olds pay for preschool. It was a first for Denver and the state, eventually growing into a nationally recognized program that has served nearly 51,000 students.

Summit County, a resort community 80 miles to the west, will soon offer the same kind of preschool assistance to 4-year-olds, using proceeds from a new property tax approved by voters in November. Local early childhood leaders say the new effort, called Summit PreK, will help prepare kids for kindergarten and make it easier for their parents to stay in the workforce.

“We really want to provide some financial relief to our low- and middle-income families,” said Lucinda Burns, executive director of Early Childhood Options, the early childhood council in Summit County.

On its face, Summit PreK is a small local victory poised to help a few hundred children and families a year in one pricey ski resort community. But some observers see it as the latest success in a broader movement that could eventually lead to statewide preschool-for-all.

“In Colorado, it feels like it’s going to be a community-by-community strategy until we reach a tipping point,” said Jennifer Stedron, executive director of the nonprofit Early Milestones Colorado, which worked with Summit County leaders on Summit PreK’s design and cost modeling.

She said gov.-elect Jared Polis, who championed free universal preschool throughout his campaign, may sense that the tide is slowly turning in favor of a statewide effort.

Still, he’ll face some big obstacles in making his vision a reality. Colorado voters have repeatedly expressed skepticism about statewide tax hikes for education, most recently rejecting Amendment 73, which would have earmarked money for preschool among other things.

A recent report from the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University dinged Colorado for lacking the political will to make progress on publicly funded preschool, citing the state’s limited education budget and the constraints of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, a constitutional amendment commonly known as TABOR.

Currently, the state funds half-day preschool for children from low-income families or with other risk factors, but there’s not enough funding to serve all eligible children. Most middle-class families, a group hit hard by child care costs and without access to most types of government assistance, don’t qualify.

For now, local initiatives hold the most promise in helping Colorado families across the economic spectrum pay for preschool. Besides Summit PreK and the Denver Preschool Program, Jeffco school district voters recently passed two tax measures that will help the district expand preschool programming, and in 2017, voters in the southwestern Colorado county of San Miguel passed a tax measure to improve local child care. More than a dozen other Colorado cities, counties, and school districts also earmark taxpayer money for early childhood efforts.

Growing interest in local early childhood tax measures could usher in a new state law next year. Cody Belzley, who leads the Denver-based Common Good Consulting, said that discussions among leaders in the Roaring Fork Valley have spurred plans to introduce a bill to create early childhood special districts.

Such districts would allow multiple municipalities or counties to join together to seek ballot initiatives for early childhood efforts. The bill died last spring after being introduced late in legislative session, but Belzley is optimistic the measure will win support next time.

In Summit County, the new preschool effort will draw heavily on the Denver Preschool Program model, both awarding tuition assistance on a sliding scale based on family income and giving extra money when families choose programs with higher ratings.

Burns, of the early childhood council, said tuition credits through Summit PreK will range from around $300 to $1,100 per month per child. The money will go directly to participating preschools.

Summit PreK will limit eligible preschool programs to those that have earned a rating of Level 2,3,4 or 5 on the state’s rating system, called Colorado Shines. Level 1 programs won’t be eligible to participate, though they will get help to improve their ratings.

Currently, 22 of 27 of Summit County’s licensed preschool programs have a rating of Level 2 or higher.

Unlike in Denver, where preschool funding came out of a narrow single-issue ballot measure — after two broader versions failed — funding for Summit PreK was part of a larger property tax measure that also included money for mental health, wildfire preparedness, recycling, and building improvements. The package passed easily.

Burns said both the county and its county seat, Breckenridge, have a track record of supporting early childhood efforts with public money.

She noted the average rent for a family of four in the county is $2,300 a month, the average cost of preschool is $1,300 a month and the average cost of health insurance is $500 a month.

“We call that the trifecta,” she said.

Tamara Drangstveit, who heads a family resource center in Silverthorne and co-chaired the campaign for Summit County’s ballot initiative, said, “Most of our voting block really understands the struggle of our working families.”

She’s personally familiar with the issue as the mother of an 8-year-old and of 3-year-old twins. She said she’ll be one of the parents applying for preschool tuition assistance through Summit PreK, which will roll out on a small scale this spring and more broadly next fall.

“It’s also not lost on me that, as a mom of twins, I’m spending more on their child care than [I will] on their college education,” Drangstveit said.

early childhood

New early learning initiative brings Sesame Street lessons into Memphis classrooms

PHOTO: Jacinthia Jones
Five-year-old Tailor Jackson can barely stay in his mother's lap when Elmo enters the room. The furry, red-haired monster was on hand Tuesday as early education leaders in Memphis announced a new partnership with Sesame Street in Communities.

Dozens of grown-ups crowded into a meeting room Tuesday at an early childhood center in Memphis to celebrate a new partner in educating the city’s youngest learners: Elmo and Sesame Street.

Officials with Porter-Leath, which provides early education to hundreds of children in the city, and ACE Awareness Foundation, which provides support and spreads awareness about adverse childhood experiences, announced the new collaborative with Sesame Street in Communities.

“Our vision here is to be the leader in early childhood, and what could be better than to have the national leader in early childhood education?” Sean Lee, president of Porter Leath, said referring to Sesame Street.

Increasing access to early childhood education has been a priority for Shelby County Schools and Shelby County elected officials. A growing body of research shows high-quality early childhood programs nurture brain development, enhance school performance and boost the likelihood of graduating from college and earning higher incomes.

PHOTO: Jacinthia Jones
Elmo was in Memphis Tuesday for the launch of a new partnership between Sesame Street in Communities and Porter-Leath, the city’s largest provider of early education services, and ACE Awareness Foundation, which provides support and spreads awareness about adverse childhood experiences or childhood traumas.

Through the partnership, Lee said that lessons and content from Sesame Street will be incorporated into its pre-kindergarten classes, and parents will receive take-home materials to reinforce the classroom learning. Additionally, he said, the collaboration will allow them to expand teacher training beyond traditional preK settings, including day care centers and family day homes.

Jeanette Betancourt, a senior vice-president at Sesame Workshop, said the national initiative embeds in existing programs to add support and resources from its research-based materials on early education, trauma experiences and school readiness.

In pursuing its mission to help kids grow smarter, stronger, and kinder, Betancourt said that Sesame Workshop realized they couldn’t just simply “place things on the screen, but we also had to be in communities.”

Sesame Street in Communities operates in seven other cities outside Memphis. The goal is to expand into 35 communities throughout the U.S. in the next five years, said Betancourt.

“I truly believe that having that [Sesame Street] title, having those connections will draw more parents and grandparents and childcare givers to the work that we’re doing,” said Renee Wilson-Simmons, executive director for ACE Awareness.

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris said that the Sesame Street initiative dovetails into one of the county’s priorities to expand quality, needs-based pre-K programs throughout the county.

“We are working really hard to implement a plan to make sure that every child regardless of their income has access to a pre-K program,” he said.