With just over a year until Colorado begins providing free preschool to 4-year-olds statewide, state lawmakers want to inject $100 million into efforts to beef up the early childhood workforce and create more slots for young children.
During a press conference Wednesday afternoon, a group of lawmakers announced the legislation, which would be funded with federal COVID relief dollars.
The money would go toward several existing grant programs, including one to help child care providers with operational costs and another to help new providers open and existing providers expand. It would also create a new program to support and train people who care for young children but are not licensed by the state.
“This bill is a massive investment in ensuring we as a state rise to the occasion of helping families out, by allowing parents to work, by allowing single parents to return to the workforce,” said state Rep. Alex Valdez, a Denver Democrat who sponsored the bill. “COVID-19 gutted our child care workforce and we need to rebuild it.”
The just-introduced bill comes at both a tenuous and momentous time for Colorado’s early childhood industry. Many child care providers are still reeling financially from the pandemic and struggling to find employees willing to work long hours for low wages. At the same time, there’s a sense of excitement as Colorado plans a massive expansion of state-funded preschool with funding from proceeds of a nicotine tax approved by voters in 2020.
Backers of the bill hope the new grant funding will ultimately improve worker pay and reduce costs for parents, but said the impact may be indirect and take time. The more immediate effect will be more money for providers to improve their facilities, get more training, and add seats.
Sponsors state Rep. Kerry Tipper, a Lakewood Democrat, and state Sen. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat, said the issue is very personal to them. When Tipper was pregnant with her first child, she ended up No. 467 on a child care waitlist. She only secured child care for this legislative session the day before it started, and she’s flying out a relative to cover a three-week child care gap later this year.
“It’s no wonder we lost so many women from the workforce,” she said.
Nicole Riehl, president and CEO of the business group Executives Partnering to Invest in Children, said after the press conference even women who’ve been able to return to their jobs haven’t necessarily been able to do so full time.
“They’re underemployed right now as opposed to unemployed,” she said.
Advocates and lawmakers emphasized the bill’s support for informal child care providers who make up a key part of the care ecosystem, “the nanas, the cousins, the aunties,” as Fields called them.
The bill earmarks $4.5 million to support such providers, who typically care for one to four children in a home setting and are not subject to state child care licensing requirements.
Lawmakers said Wednesday that helping such “family, friend, and neighbor” providers make their homes safer, get more training, and buy age-appropriate toys and books will ensure more families have access to high-quality care in rural areas, in settings where their home language is spoken, and with people they know and trust.
The bill is bipartisan, with state Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, a Sterling Republican, joining as a sponsor. Backers of the bill said his involvement helped ensure benefits will extend far beyond the Front Range and into rural communities where child care centers are fewer and more people rely on informal care.
Supporters said improving the quality of care young children get in a variety of settings will help prepare them for preschool and for kindergarten.
The bill calls for the state to provide $100 million on top of about $670 million in COVID relief already allocated for early childhood efforts in Colorado. Most of the $670 million came from federal COVID relief funding, while a small amount came from a special state appropriation in 2020.
Despite the infusion of funding, many child care and preschool providers have continued to struggle. In some cases, it’s because they had a hard time enticing families to return to care. Many have also faced chronic staff shortages, sometimes forcing them to close classrooms.
Experts say part of the problem is that child care was already a failed business model — with low worker pay essentially subsidizing the cost of care because otherwise families couldn’t afford it.
Among the existing efforts that the proposed legislation would fund:
Grants to help current child care providers with operational expenses.
Grants that help prospective child care providers pay costs of opening a business and existing child care providers create new slots.
Grants to help businesses create child care centers for their employees on site or nearby.
Grants to help prospective child care teachers earn required qualifications.
Ann Schimke is a senior reporter at Chalkbeat, covering early childhood issues and early literacy. Contact Ann at [email protected] Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer covers education policy and politics and oversees Chalkbeat Colorado’s education coverage. Contact Erica at [email protected]