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.

leading the state

Three things we heard at a gubernatorial candidates forum on early childhood

PHOTO: Ann Schimke | Chalkbeat
Jared Polis, the Democratic candidate for Colorado governor, and Lang Sias, the Republican lieutenant governor candidate, spoke at forum on early childhood issues.

Stark differences in how Colorado’s two would-be governors plan to tackle early childhood issues were clear at a candidate forum Monday evening.

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, the Democratic nominee, envisions free full-day preschool and kindergarten for all Colorado children — a sweeping and pricey expansion of what’s currently available.

Republican lieutenant governor candidate Lang Sias, who stood in for gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton, said Republicans would focus public funds on narrower programs that benefit the poorest children.

Currently, Colorado funds early childhood programs for some of its young children. The state provides half-day preschool to 4-year-olds with certain risk factors, but the program covers only some of those who qualify. In addition, the state reimburses districts for just over half the cost of full-day kindergarten, leaving districts to pay for the rest or pass on the cost to families through tuition. Last spring, lawmakers expanded the state income tax credit for child care costs, but most families still need to come up with hundreds or even thousands of dollars a month.

Monday’s event at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science represented a rare opportunity to hear candidates address early childhood issues, which are often overshadowed on the campaign trail by topics such as housing, roads and health care. While the forum highlighted some of the big early childhood ideas championed by each campaign, it also left plenty of unanswered questions.

Stapleton, Colorado’s state treasurer, was originally slated to speak at the forum, but backed out citing family obligations. Sias, a state representative from Arvada and a member of the House Education Committee, spoke in his place.

Polis and Sias didn’t debate each other at Monday’s forum, or otherwise interact. Polis went first, giving a short statement about his early childhood platform then answering several questions posed by moderator Bill Jaeger, vice president for early childhood and policy initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign. Sias followed suit.

The event was sponsored by Constellation Philanthropy, a group of funders focused on early childhood issues. (Constellation is a Chalkbeat funder.)

Here are three things we learned from the forum:

The candidates have different ideas about which young children need help and how to provide it

In discussing his plans to create universal full-day preschool and kindergarten, Polis talked about using a public-private financing mechanism that’s sometimes called “social impact bonds.”

In this kind of financing — also called “pay for success” — private investors or philanthropists pay up front for social programs and get repaid with interest if those programs save public money by reducing the need for costly services such as special education or reading remediation. If a project doesn’t yield the hoped-for savings, the investors lose some or all of their money.

Polis said if he wins in November, he’ll immediately “work out how to partner with philanthropy to create more early childhood education for all income levels.”

Currently a version of social impact bonds is being used to pay for full-day preschool for some students in the Westminster school district north of Denver, a fact Polis mentioned Monday. Still, the financing mechanism is relatively untested in Colorado’s education sphere and it’s unclear how it might be scaled to pay for something as ambitious as statewide full-day preschool and kindergarten.

When talking about the Republican ticket’s early-education priorities, Sias described early childhood education as “incredibly important” but “very inequitably distributed.”

“We want to focus our public spending on those who are least able to afford it on their own,” he said.

He cited a proposal for education savings accounts that allow families to set aside money tax-free for educational expenses, including early childhood education.

“We realize that is more focused on middle-class and above families,” he said, “but by targeting that money using that program, we feel we will have more available to target the folks at the bottom of the spectrum who really cannot avail themselves of that opportunity.”

Education savings accounts don’t typically work for low-income parents because they have no extra money to set aside for future expenses.

The candidates would take different approaches to strengthening the early childhood workforce

In a field marked by low pay and tough working conditions, recruiting and retaining qualified teachers is a chronic problem. The candidates had ideas about how to bulk up the workforce.

Sias advocated for a residency program to help turn out new early childhood teachers, similar to what he’s previously proposed to help address the K-12 teacher shortage. He said such programs are data-driven, helping retain teachers for longer periods and improving student results.

He also floated the idea of recruiting midlife career-changers to early childhood work — “folks north of 50” — and hinted that they would work in the low-paid field.

“Is that an opportunity to tap into … folks who would like to fill those spots who maybe don’t have the same set of issues that millennials do in terms of how long they want to stay and how long they need to be committed, and frankly how much they need to be paid?”

While some middle-aged people do enter the field, mediocre pay, a maze of state regulations, and the growing push to boost providers’ education levels could make it a tough sell.

Polis talked about creating partnerships with colleges to beef up the credentials of people who currently work in the early childhood field.

He said it’s important to “bridge the skills gap” for those whose hearts are already in the work. He didn’t address how he could dramatically expand preschool and kindergarten simply by focusing on the existing workforce, where turnover can be as high as 40 percent annually.

Neither candidate talked about how he would boost compensation for early childhood workers, whose median pay in Colorado is $12.32 an hour, Jaeger said.

Both candidates agree that Colorado can do much better by its youngest residents

When asked how Colorado is doing overall in supporting young children and their families, both candidates agreed that the state has a long way to go.

Sias emphasized that low-income children continue to be left out. Polis talked about the lack of uniform access to full-day kindergarten.

Both candidates expressed interest in working with bipartisan coalitions on solutions.

“There’s so many people in our state who want to do right by their kids,” said Polis. “It’s really going to take folks from across the spectrum coming together.”

Sias, who argued for a combination of business-minded acumen and public money for early childhood, asked the audience to partner with lawmakers in finding what programs work.

He said he and Stapleton are “more than willing to work across the aisle with folks that we like and respect, and have knowledge in this area.”

Early Childhood

Jeff Bezos says he will use his riches to open Montessori preschools

PHOTO: Nick Hagen
A student in a Detroit Montessori program. Jeff Bezos announced today on Twitter that he would be pouring $2 billion into two major initiatives, including “a network of new, non-profit, tier-one preschools in low-income communities.”

The latest effort to improve early childhood education for poor children comes from the richest man alive: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

Bezos announced today on Twitter that he would be pouring $2 billion into two major initiatives, including “a network of new, non-profit, tier-one preschools in low-income communities.”

The preschools, Bezos wrote, will be free for students and inspired by the Montessori approach, in which children direct their own learning in an environment that is prepared for them to explore. Montessori instruction has traditionally been available only in private schools, but new efforts to make the model more accessible have taken hold, and recent research suggests that it benefits children from low-income families.

Bezos also signaled that he intends to apply his famously stringent standards to the new schools. The hands-on CEO reportedly still reads emails from Amazon customers and has been known to berate executives when the customer experience suffers. At the preschools, he wrote, “The child will be the customer.”

Much about the initiative is unclear, from what “tier-one” means to where, when, and how many schools will open. Bezos’s announcement did not acknowledge the current bipartisan movement to fund preschool more widely, so it’s unclear whether his network might ever seek public money or how it might interact with — or even crowd out — existing efforts to expand preschools.

It’s also not clear how much transparency to expect from Bezos’s effort, which he called the Day One Fund. A number of wealthy individuals, including Mark Zuckerberg, have organized their giving through a limited liability company, rather than a nonprofit. This approach does not require disclosing who receives grants and allows the organizations to give to political causes and invest in for-profit companies.

Research has pointed to long-run benefits of early childhood education programs. One recent study found that the benefits extended to multiple generations — the children of children who participated in the federal Head Start program were more likely to graduate from high school and attend college.

In addition to preschools, the Day One Fund will tackle homelessness, according to Bezos, who crafted his giving strategy after asking his Twitter followers how he should spend his wealth.