State answers questions about universal preschool, but unknowns still remain

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Child care providers and preschools can now sign up to administer Colorado’s universal preschool program, and some major details about the program — like how much providers will be reimbursed for participating and how it will accommodate families in need — have been announced.

The reimbursement rate, which varies by region and depends on local factors including cost of living, was a big question mark last year for child care and preschool providers considering signing up for UPK, a new program that will provide all 4-year-olds in the state with a minimum of 10 hours of state-funded preschool each week starting in fall 2023.

Here is what providers in El Paso County can expect to receive, on average, for the 2023-24 school year, according to the Colorado Department of Early Childhood. The rates are slightly lower than the state’s averages.

• For kids getting 10 hours of UPK per week (part time): $4,735.40 per year, per child.

• For kids getting 15 hours per week (half day): $5,917.35.

• For kids with qualifying factors getting 30 hours per week (full day): $10,469.89.

Although reimbursement estimates for El Paso County have been announced, the rate remains a particularly big concern for Family Child Care Homes, or privately run day cares, says Alma Wiley, who runs a day care out of her home in Security and is president of the Pikes Peak Region Family Child Care Association, which represents about half of the smaller-scale providers in El Paso and Teller counties. FCCH make up nearly 200 of all the 550 child care and preschool providers in El Paso County, according to a Dec. 1 count by CDEC.

FCCH owners wonder, will the rate meet what they charge families for weekly care, and thus, make it financially feasible for them to participate? And, importantly, Wiley has questions about additional costs their child care businesses might incur from participating — will they need additional planning, training, curriculum, supplies and assessment tools, because of any new degree or program requirements.

Those requirements are not yet determined, but are expected soon from the CDEC, the agency administering the program, she says in an email.

“Since each FCCH sets their own prices, I feel it will be low for some and just right for others,” Wiley says. “I feel the problem is going to be, what extra cost will FCCH have and will we have to eat that extra cost, because we have been told UPK [dollars] are to go directly to UPK and are not for administrative costs.”

She says that the average cost of care for a 4-year-old in FCCH ranges from $200 to $350 per week. On the low end, that would amount to more than $10,000 per year.

More later on the problems smaller-scale providers may face with UPK. First, here’s some background on the program.

UPK, which is launching for the 2023-24 school year, is designed to expand early childhood education and help Colorado families manage the rising cost of child care and will be mostly funded by tax revenue from cigarette, tobacco and nicotine and vaping product sales, an allocation approved by a 2020 ballot measure.

The program is set to provide all 4-year-olds with 10 to 15 hours of state-funded preschool per week, with additional hours available for those who have qualifying factors, including children from low-income households and non-native English speakers. The base hours, in practice, could provide a 3- to 5-day week of no-cost, half-day preschool to families of 4-year-olds, since many providers offer blocks of three hours of care in the morning and three hours in the afternoon.

Children 3 years old or younger who have qualifying factors may also be eligible for at least 10 hours of UPK per week, according to CDEC.

Families can use their allotted hours at any participating provider — CDEC wants to create a “mixed delivery system,” including school district-based preschools, for-profit or nonprofit child care and preschool centers and FCCH. As of Jan. 4, 568 providers statewide had been registered to participate, says Hope Shuler, interim marketing and communications director for CDEC, in an email.

Twenty-two of those providers are in El Paso County, Shuler says. They include:

• Four school districts (some of which have multiple preschool locations)  — Colorado Springs School District 11, Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8, Widefield School District 3 and Ellicott School District 22;

• three faith-based providers; and

• twelve community providers, which include both centers and smaller-scale providers.

Families with 4-year-olds (as of Oct. 1, 2023) can enroll their children in UPK for the upcoming school year beginning on Jan. 17, using an online portal that CDEC says will help connect families with participating providers and indicate how many state-funded hours are available to them, according to a FAQ about the program. The portal hasn’t launched yet, but we’ll share a link when it does.

Wiley lists a number of program details that haven’t been announced yet, and ongoing concerns about how it’s going to go in the fall. She says she hasn’t registered for the program yet, and did not know how many in her association had.

“I do know many are still confused about it,” she says.

We also reached out to Joint Initiatives for Youth and Families, the Local Coordinating Organization assigned to manage UPK in El Paso County, about local sign-up numbers and program unknowns at this point, and haven’t heard back yet. JI has been holding input and information sessions about the program for county providers and families, and providers may register for UPK through the nonprofit.

On the weekly hours per child — which were increased to 15 from an initial 10 to allow for a full week of half days — Wiley says this is better for school districts, which generally provide preschool on a 12-hour per week basis.

And families of 4-year-olds who have a qualifying factor will be able to apply for up to 30 hours of UPK each week, which amounts to a 5-day week of full-day (six hours) preschool.

But Wiley notes that still doesn’t cover a 40-hour workweek. There are additional state and federal programs through which families can seek extra funding, but Wiley believes that “stacked funding is going to work best for centers and maybe school districts and providers who take [the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program funds].” These providers tend to have much more experience working with existing child care assistance programs.

“Everyone else will lose out,” she says.

The CDEC will continue making new rules for UPK through 2023. There is a Rules Advisory Council meeting scheduled for Jan. 12, and a virtual public rule-making hearing scheduled for Jan. 23, where the public may hear and comment on proposed rules.

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