Colorado will offer free universal preschool in 2023. What about Utah?

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Starting in 2023, Colorado will pay for 10 hours of preschool education per week for every 4-year-old in the state, regardless of income.

Supporters say expanding access to early childhood education will help close achievement gaps earlier, help learners bounce back from the impacts of the pandemic, and advance structural equity in the system. of Colorado Public Education.

The initiative will be funded, in part, by the proceeds of a 2020 voter-approved nicotine tax hike, which will triple state taxes on a pack of cigarettes to $2.64 by 2027, and impose new taxes and levies on smokeless tobacco and vaping products. It will also be funded by the state’s existing preschool program, which serves children with certain risk factors.

Colorado Governor Jared Polis signed legislation to launch the Universal Preschool Initiative. Polis, a first-term Democrat, campaigned to provide free preschool.

“There is no better investment than an investment in education and our children,” Polis said in a KUSA-TV report.

Terri Mitchell, early childhood administrator for Canyons School District in Utah, said the proposal will likely allow more Colorado children to access a high-quality education, which is important as the nation continues to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The children who will turn 4 next year were toddlers when the pandemic started.

“Since the start of the pandemic, they have missed a lot of things. Thus, they missed social opportunities. They missed out on experiences they might normally have had with their family, but things were locked down and shut down,” Mitchell said.

These experiences help prepare children for instruction and to be part of a learning community when they start school.

“We noticed that even in the Canyons School District, we had an increase in the number of students having more emotional and social needs with their peers,” as well as delays in their language development, she said. .

Mitchell said the benefits of early childhood education are well documented, but it’s very important that families have a range of options that meet their individual needs. Some children struggle with self-regulation at this age, and it may be unrealistic to expect them to be able to handle a structured classroom.

“My question is, are we as adults creating this problem for him and helping him fail or are there other ways to help him succeed?” Mitchell said.

The Colorado Systems Approach

Colorado has taken a systems approach to early childhood education, said Anna Thomas, senior policy analyst for the nonprofit Voices for Utah Children’s advocacy program.

Earlier in Polis’ term, the Colorado General Assembly expanded full-day kindergarten with state funding. Universal preschool was the next step in the plan, she said. The newly approved legislation also created a State Department of Early Childhood.

“We don’t have that systematic approach in Utah. We are still struggling to get our state leaders, especially the leaders of the Legislative Assembly, to understand that to do well in first grade, many children in the state need a lot of help in kindergarten, which you can’t do in two and a half hours,” Thomas said.

As Colorado prepares to launch Universal Early Childhood Education, Utah plans to expand its full-day kindergarten offerings somewhat with an additional $12.2 million appropriation approved at the recent general session of the Utah legislature.

Currently, Utah public schools offer 30% of students access to full-day kindergarten compared to the rest of the country, where 80% of students have access to full-time programs. Educators had sought funds to expand the program statewide, but lawmakers appropriated far less than the $23 million in permanent funds requested by the State Board of Education. ‘Utah.

Some school districts have chosen to offer full-day kindergarten programs themselves, securing local, state, and federal funding and grants to support the program.

The Wasatch School District, for example, has offered full-day kindergarten since 2018. While some parents initially preferred the traditional half-day program for their children, only a handful of parents are requesting this option. The vast majority of kindergarten children in the district attend full days, according to Superintendent Paul Sweat.

A public opinion poll conducted for Voices for Utah Children also indicates high support for the public preschool.

A statewide poll of 1,976 Utah voters conducted last summer showed that among parents whose children were not yet old enough to attend kindergarten through 12th year, 70% would enroll their children in public kindergarten if they had the opportunity. Meanwhile, 66% of children past preschool age said they would too.

A whopping 90% of respondents viewed pre-kindergarten programs as beneficial, with 51% saying they are very beneficial and 39% saying they are somewhat beneficial. The Y2 Analytics poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.2 percentage points.

Thomas said that makes her “really, really happy for the children and families in Colorado who are going to benefit” from the state’s early learning initiative.

“I think Colorado will come into being, you know, in 20, 30, 40 years, but their state will reap the benefits of having kids who have that kind of support early in life. I’ll be thrilled to see that that they will do as they put this in place and work things out,” she said.

Preschool in the Canyons District

Canyons District offers preschool programs in 22 classrooms in 12 schools. Some 900 children aged 3 to 5 are registered and families have the option of sending their children two days a week or four days a week. Each class lasts 2.5 hours and morning and afternoon sessions are offered. Children can only attend 2.5 hours per day, and the program follows the same school schedule as K-12 schools in the district.

The district provides free preschool services to children with disabilities and those who live within Title I boundaries. Other families may choose to attend preschool and are assessed tuition, which starts at $100 per week to attend two days.

All classes are a mix of students with and without disabilities, which Mitchell says benefits all learners.

“Our tuition-paying students are wonderful role models, social role models, linguistic role models for our students with disabilities. They learn empathy for students… who are different, right? They learn to be protectors or warriors for students with disabilities. I really think it creates a culture of inclusion,” she said.

In theory, preschoolers in Colorado should benefit from the universal tuition program, but maintaining a stable workforce of educators and aides in the preschool segment poses challenges.

Most of the teachers who lead preschool classes in the Canyons District are licensed teachers, which means they receive salaries and benefits. Many of the teachers were paraprofessionals whom Mitchell convinced to get college degrees and become teachers. “We kind of developed our own,” she said, noting that there’s low turnover among certified teachers.

Preschool paraprofessional Ana Suastequi, left, plays with students at Sandy Elementary on Wednesday, April 27, 2022.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

But for classroom assistants, it has been difficult to maintain sufficient staff and at times Mitchell has been in a rush to fill classrooms this school year. It’s a statewide problem, she said, explaining that several school districts in Utah offer some form of preschool program.

Labor shortages may impact Colorado’s plans to offer preschool services to all 4-year-olds, but Mitchell credits Colorado officials with understanding the value of early childhood education. childhood.

“I think it’s great that Colorado has found a way to provide this for families. I think that’s great. I think it could really benefit the kids,” she said.

The Utah Legislature funds a home-based educational technology program, Waterford Upstart, to build school-readiness skills in preschoolers. It’s free to Utah families, and the provider can provide laptops and internet connections to eligible students.

Upstart is a great learning tool for kids, “but it’s not preschool, and it’s not a substitute for preschool.” It may be an additional charge. It can be a great family activity where parents can work with their children and help them learn. It’s not preschool, just no,” Thomas said.

If Utah is serious about investing in children, it would say yes to a full range of programs and services such as Upstart, full-day preschool and kindergarten and “let’s not choose the least investment we can and hope for.” that will do the trick. ‘”

Governor Spencer Cox’s 2022 State of the State Address proposed a new office to support families by ensuring that “government policies do not harm families and that we coordinate government services to help parents and children to succeed,” he said.

Thomas said she had yet to hear a follow-up to this proposal and it was unclear how early childhood education would fit into this plan.

“I haven’t seen any indication from the Governor’s office or the Legislative Assembly that they are really serious about investing in young children, their education and their health to ensure that 20, 30, 40, 50 years later, families in Utah have what they need to be happy and successful.

“So we’re very happy for them (the families in Colorado) and we’re kind of like, ‘Are we ever going to make it in Utah?'”

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