Following on his full-day kindergarten pitch, Colorado Gov. Polis highlights plans for 8,000 new preschool slots

After rallying support for statewide full-day kindergarten during his first three weeks in office, Gov. Jared Polis turned his attention to preschool on Thursday, another piece of his ambitious early childhood agenda.

Against the backdrop of a red, blue and gray play structure inside the Englewood school district’s gleaming new preschool, Polis committed to creating 8,000 new state-funded preschool slots by next fall.

His plan, he said “represents the biggest expansion of early learning programs in Colorado’s history and would go a long way to addressing the current waitlist for early childhood education.”

State officials estimate that at least 8,200 preschool-aged children are eligible for the state-funded Colorado Preschool Program, but can’t be served because there isn’t enough funding. Last year, the $111 million program served about 27,000 children, mostly preschoolers but also some full-day kindergartners because of a 2013 law that created more flexibility in the program. Colorado Preschool Program participants come from low-income families or have risk factors such as speech difficulties or parents who didn’t graduate from high school.

While the proposed expansion of the state preschool program would be a notable win for the governor, it would be only the first step toward the universal preschool program he championed during his campaign. But a program that serves all of the state’s preschool-aged children regardless of family income will carry a large price tag and is likely years away.

During his remarks to a small audience of early childhood advocates at Englewood’s Maddox early childhood center, Polis said preschool reduces the likelihood students will struggle with reading, repeat a grade, or get involved in the criminal justice system.

“Studies show that investments in quality early childhood education save money over time,” he said.

After his speech at the Thursday morning event, held to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Colorado Preschool Program, Polis toured the center, which opened in early January. He bantered with children in their classrooms and in the school’s new “maker space,” where preschoolers were using colorful toothpicks and white styrofoam shapes to make snowmen on stainless steel tables.

Polis isn’t the only new governor moving quickly on early childhood priorities since taking office earlier this month. California Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed a massive early childhood initiative that would beef up full-day kindergarten offerings and phase in 200,000 new full-day preschool slots.

In other states with governors who promoted early childhood education on the campaign trail, the pace of change could be slower. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, whose state is struggling to find $6.8 billion it owes K-12 schools, made no mention of his campaign pledge to usher in universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds during his first speech as governor two weeks ago.

In Colorado, 5,000 of the proposed new preschool slots depend on the success of Polis’ full-day kindergarten plan. That’s because funding would come from Colorado Preschool Program slots that are currently used for kindergarteners under the 2013 provision that allowed school districts more flexibility. In addition to freeing up 5,000 new slots for preschoolers, Polis is seeking funding for 3,000 additional preschool slots in his budget proposal.

He said the state won’t make a final decision on funding his early childhood proposals until quarterly financial forecasts are finalized in March, but he doesn’t expect to have to make major adjustments.