Statewide change is coming to early childhood education
What the state’s transition to the new Department of Early Childhood might mean for local families and child care providers
Changes are coming to the state’s early childhood education industry as the government begins its transition to a new agency. In recent weeks, the state has begun to release some of its first plans for the transition to the Department of Early Childhood, an indication of the growing importance of the field across the state.
“It signals that we’re elevating early childhood to an importance across the state, demonstrating that this is as important as K-12 education and that we need to be focusing on it and not just thinking about it afterward,” said Jeanne McQueeney, Eagle County commissioner and Early Childhood Leadership Commission commissioner, in a phone interview on Wednesday.
The Early Childhood Leadership Commission has played a vital role in the creation of the transition plan for the Department of Early Education.
McQueeney has been in the field of early childhood for some time and said in recent years, she’s seen a shift in how people value early childhood education — particularly from federal and state legislators as well as local policymakers as they begin to allocate more resources and funds to addressing challenges in the field.
“I used to quote the research about brain development and the economic impacts of a child care center, and I really didn’t get a whole lot of response,” she said, adding that now, more people “understand the impact that high-quality early childhood has on a child, a family and a community — everybody understands that this is something we have to pay attention to.”
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No more is this exemplified than with the creation of the Department of Early Childhood, which signals even more progress and could lead to positive changes locally, for families and providers.
Per the state’s Constitution, there can only be 20 state-level departments. The early childhood department will be No. 20. That the importance of early childhood has been elevated to this level is exciting, McQueeney said.
“It’s really impressive that the state legislators and the governor understood that this is so important we’re going to use that last department spot and make it a focus on early childhood,” she said. “I’m proud of our state for taking that on and it’s an exciting place to be in early childhood right now.”
How we got here
This summer, Colorado legislature established the state Department of Early Childhood with the passage of a new bill. The new department is expected to launch in June 2022.
The need for this department followed the passage of Proposition EE by Colorado voters in 2020, which established a tax on nicotine and vaping products and directed 73% of the funding from the tax to a universal, voluntary preschool program.
After it was passed, a preschool policy development process “unearthed a set of challenges underlying the entire early childhood system, including fragmentation and misalignment, which make it difficult for families and providers to navigate the system,” according to the state’s Department of Early Childhood Transition Plan, released in November.
Currently, the state’s early childhood program is operated out of the Colorado Department of Human Services, Office of Early Childhood. Transitioning these critical services and programs to its own department will not only bring new dedicated funding and resources, but will solve some of the other existing challenges.
Specifically, in a letter recommending the creation of the department, the Early Childhood Leadership Commission wrote that it would “consolidate the various authorities, programs, and funding streams that currently exist across state agencies and focus on a unified vision of comprehensive early childhood service delivery for all children birth to age 5.”
In a recent statement, Gov. Jared Polis said that the state’s plans for the department will “make Colorado more affordable, save families money, and expand access to quality early childhood services for Colorado kids.”
Last week, Polis named M. Michael Cooke as the transition director for the department. Cooke will serve as the director for about two years while the state begins a search for the agency’s executive director. The state said it intends to hire the executive director in the spring. In her new role, Cooke will lead the transition and change management as the state establishes the new agency.
On the local level, McQueeney underlined that the hope is the new department will “really streamline things for families,” starting with the simplification of applications.
Right now, families accessing services have to fill out a multitude of applications, including program-specific applications, which can be “cumbersome for families,” McQueeney said.
“We’re hoping that this will align those programs and we have a way of transferring data so that families can apply to one and be done,” McQueeney said.
Similarly, the hope is that the department will also streamline many processes for local child care providers.
“The hoops that a child care provider has to jump through to — they just have different forms to fill out, different checklists to go through, different people to meet with — we’re hoping that will become more aligned and we’ll have one set of standards, as opposed to multiple sets,” McQueeney said.
One of the department’s first big to-dos will be launching the universal preschool program, which will provide all families access to 10 hours of early care and education per week, per child in the year before kindergarten, in accordance with Proposition EE. In early December, the state released its first draft plan for the program, which is expected to launch in July 2023.
The local implications of this program are yet to be realized, McQueeney said, however, the impacts will be numerous.
“The initial benefit is that families who could not afford child care for their 4-year-olds will have free 10 hours a week of child care,” she said. “We have a lot of families who need child care, so that will help.”
She added that one thing that still needs to be figured out, and that will be enabled by the creation of the department, is how to create a system that extends care past the 10 free hours for families that need 30 to 40 hours of care in a week.
Plus, McQueeney is keeping an eye on one specific part of the universal preschool plan, which identified that there will need to be a local lead named in every area. However, the state has not defined what an area is — be it a town, county or region — nor has it defined how the lead will be named.
“I feel strongly that it needs to be a local decision who the local lead is,” she said.
One of the greatest challenges right now facing child care providers — especially in Eagle County — is hiring and workforce development. Not only do providers face the same workforce challenges as other local employers, but they also face burdensome certification and licensing requirements from the state.
McQueeney is also hopeful that the department will bring some solutions to these challenges.
“There will be more workforce development and that’s going to benefit us,” she said, adding that this has already begun. Most recently, the state made a number of classes required to work in the field free, hopefully the first in a line of benefits to early childhood workforce development.
Already in its transition plan, the state has outlined some recommendations to solve workforce challenges, including simplifying qualification pathways, better supporting training opportunities and higher education opportunities, finding a way to fund livable wages for employees and more.
In addition to the creation of the department, the state, as well as the federal government, have also prioritized early child care through the allocation of COVID-19 relief dollars. However, while this relief promises to bolster the early childhood community, McQueeney said, it has been a bit “cumbersome and clunky” at the state level. She added that she hopes the department will be able to streamline and smooth some of this out for local providers to receive this relief.
Overall, the department, she hopes, will simply supplement what the county is already doing for early childhood education. Each year, the county supports the industry with $1.5 million. Most recently, many of these funds have gone to fill gaps with wages and benefits in the industry, McQueeney said, adding that its most recent “creative way” to address these workforce issues is by providing rent support for centers and organizations.
“We’re continuing to focus on the capacity and the quality of child care,” she said.