Polis on Early Childhood

Gov. Jared Polis speaks about Colorado's new Department of Early Childhood at a ceremony at at Aurora Public Schools' Meadowood Child Development Center on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021.

Gov. Jared Polis and a cadre of supportive Democrats on Wednesday afternoon unveiled Colorado’s Department of Early Childhood, aimed at making education more readily available to young children and expanding opportunities for older ones.

"We know that parents face difficulties at work due to the lack of child care," Polis said during an afternoon ceremony at Aurora Public Schools' Meadowood Child Development Center. "That's an issue that's only going to be made worse by this COVID-19 pandemic, and the data is clear that good child care and high-quality preschool can make a major difference in outcomes.

"The success for future job opportunities and higher earning are significant."

A plan to address the needs of the youngest Coloradans will be presented to the state Early Childhood Leadership Commission for approval on Nov. 15.

The new office is the product of House Bill 1304, signed into law by Polis in June to create the state government's 20th department.

The Department of Early Childhood will be tasked with:

  • Unifying the administration of disparate early childhood programs and services.
  • Providing early childhood learning and support opportunities.
  • Coordinating available early childhood programs and services statewide.
  • Forging state and community partnerships for a mixed delivery of public and private services.
  • Prioritizing "the interests and input of children, parents, providers and the community."
  • Ensuring equitable use of resources.

The legislation this year that created the department is the product of last year's voter-approved Proposition EE, which taxed tobacco and vaping products to pay for early childhood support services.

The ballot question, however, did not call for the establishment of a new state agency to do the job.

Legislative budget analysts projected the department would cost just more than $1 million in the current fiscal year budget, including the equivalent of 6.7 new employees, then cost $672,274 in next year's budget with the equivalent of another 5.7 full-time jobs.

The new law also could impact workload for some local governments, analysts reported.

House Bill 1304 passed the Senate unanimously and picked up only two Republican no votes in the House.

The legislation was sponsored by all Democrats: House Speaker Alec Garnett of Denver, Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg of Boulder, Rep. Emily Sirota of Denver and Sen. Janet Buckner of Aurora.

"We know that early childhood is a critical period that shapes a child's experiences," Buckner said Wednesday afternoon, explaining that research shows children who receive benefits do better academically and socially.

The new department will make sure the issues for families and children are a state priority, Buckner said.

"The new Department of Early Childhood is going to have a champion at the Cabinet level, and that person is going to wake up every day thinking about how to make this system work better for kids and families."

Headed into Polis' reelection year, the announcement underscored a key promise he made when he ran for his first term in 2018, as he pledged to expand early childhood education.

In 2019, he rode herd over bipartisan legislation to fund free universal kindergarten, an unkept pledge made for years by Colorado politicians who couldn't coalesce the money and disparate interests to make it happen.

For many years, full-day kindergarten was a pipe dream for Republicans, led by former GOP Rep. Jim Wilson of Salida, a former coach, teacher, principal and school system superintendent.

Polis mentioned Wednesday that this year he signed legislation to invest $30 million in one-time money into 15 new or renovated child care facilities at state offices, community colleges and colleges across the state, "so the state leads by example." 

"A single mom should be able to go on, finish her degree," he said. "We ought to remove the barriers from that, and childcare being one of those barriers that we can do more to overcome, providing onsite child care services across the state, supports a thriving workforce."

Colorado Politics senior political reporter

Joey Bunch is the senior correspondent and deputy managing editor of Colorado Politics. His 32-year career includes the last 16 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and he is a two-time finalist.

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