COLORADO SPRINGS — Proposition EE passed last year to hike taxes on tobacco and vaping products to help fund free universal preschool in the state. But advocates say there are still barriers to early childhood education.
For Drew and Brittany Smith it was hard trying to find a preschool for their young daughter.
"I didn't know where to start. You kinda start on the internet and say early childhood education or daycare in your city. It's kinda hard to navigate," said Drew.
During his search, Drew says he was shocked at how much early childhood education cost.
"I knew it was going to be expensive, but it was as much as our mortgage," said Drew.
The couple was lucky enough to find Early Connections Learning Centers in Colorado Springs which is income-based.
"Without that discount, it would be more than our mortgage. We looked at a few different places and I did get some quotes and they are all about the same," said Drew.
When Proposition EE passed, the couple says they were excited to hear that free universal preschool would be available in the state, especially since most families are unable to afford it.
"Prop EE is guaranteed 10 1/2 hours a week, that's a great start but that's certainly not what a working family needs. They need a full day, full year, or something that meets the needs of the family," said Diane Price, President, and CEO of Early Connections Learning Centers.
Price is a part of the Leadership Committee for Proposition EE. Once it passed, she says the committee quickly realized there was no comprehensive plan for early childhood education in the state.
"We have childcare, we have the Colorado Preschool Program, we have preschool and now we have universal pre-k. But we didn't have a system, and so they function in a sort of disconnected way," said Price.
The committee also realized that funding, governance, and infrastructure remain challenges in providing early childhood education opportunities to families. Prompting them to create a list of recommendations for what Proposition EE should look like.
"We've talked about the governance structure, we've talked about the funding structure, we've talked about standards, we've talked about teacher qualifications, family engagement, and the multiple ways people could enter into it and multiple places they could get pre-k. We also talked at length about accountability, we know we need to be accountable to our taxpayers," said Price.
Even with new revenue from Proposition EE, the Colorado Children’s Campaign says no single funding stream can adequately cover the full-day, full-year needs of working families.
"This can't just be about preschool, it can't be about this one funding stream. Families are really struggling to make ends meet," said Melissa Mares, Early Childhood Policy Fellow at the Colorado Children's Campaign.
The organization says recent meetings with early childhood care and education providers, parents, and advocates about the implementation of the universal preschool programs found that better funding and a stronger governance structure are two issues that require immediate attention.
"Families may be really taking on the burden of managing multiple applications to get funding for a full day of preschool, maybe not even a full day of preschool. Driving their children from part-day preschool to childcare. We also heard from providers that if they have the staff, a lot of them try to take that burden off of families and try to navigate the bureaucracy themselves, but it takes an incredible amount of staff time," said Mares.
Proponents behind Proposition EE say they have until the fall of 2023 to implement a plan for free universal preschool.
"We have a lot of time to implement this so what I think we'll see is taking on the biggest buckets first so that there's time to make any changes," said Mares.
Families looking forward to new changes.
"A way to figure it out and navigate the system easier. I would like to see some continuity between the whole education system as a whole," said Drew.
"I personally would like for it to go further and focus on early early childhood education like our daughter's age," said Brittany.