In talking up his ambitious plans for universal preschool in Colorado, Gov. Jared Polis cited a neighboring state with a popular and widely praised free preschool program. 

“It’s about time we caught up with Oklahoma,” he told a group of parents, school leaders, and reporters gathered in the hallway of a Littleton preschool on a recent Friday afternoon.

But matching the Sooner State’s preschool program will be no small feat, especially given Colorado’s constant struggles to fully fund K-12 schools and voters’ repeated rejection of statewide taxes for education. While Polis did notch a modest victory last spring by securing more than 5,000 new half-day preschool slots, lawmakers — including some Democrats — have expressed doubt they’ll be able to find the money for his latest request of 6,000 more slots.

Polis is hardly alone in his bid for a major statewide preschool expansion, though he’s recently shifted his rhetoric away from free preschool for all 4-year-olds. Gov. Gavin Newsom in California and Gov. J.B. Pritzker in Illinois, who, like Polis, also took office in 2019, have similar goals. Instead of fulfilling his pledge to build out a universal preschool program for 3- and 4-year-olds statewide, Pritzker is first focusing on investment in home visiting programs.

A slew of other states — and some big cities — have launched universal free preschool for 4-year-olds. Besides Oklahoma, there’s Washington, D.C., New York City, Florida, Vermont, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Iowa and Georgia. 

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Oklahoma’s program, one of the oldest, was established in 1998. That’s when a Democratic lawmaker in the deeply conservative state quietly tucked the universal preschool provision into an amendment to a bill about kindergarten enrollment rules. The preschool program, which is voluntary for school districts and for parents, now serves three-quarters of the state’s 4-year-olds, and meets nine of 10 quality standards recommended by a national early childhood research group. 

Oklahoma is ranked fourth in the nation for the percentage of 4-year-olds enrolled in state-funded preschool, after Washington, D.C., Florida and Vermont, by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. 

By contrast, Colorado’s is ranked 28th, serving about a quarter of the state’s 4-year-olds. This year, about 23,500 children — mostly 4-year-olds —  are enrolled in the program, up from 22,000 last year. (While state officials frequently refer to more than 5,000 new preschool slots, that doesn’t mean 5,000 additional children were enrolled. Districts combined many of the new half-day slots this year to create full-day slots.)

Preschoolers in the Colorado Preschool Program come from low-income families or have other risk factors such as language or social delays. The program meets only  five of 10 quality standards set out by the National Institute for Early Education Research, falling short on teacher credentials, class size limits, and early screening requirements.

Joe Dorman, executive director of the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy, said his state’s universal preschool program baked in quality from the start — components like a 1-to-10 staff-child ratio and a requirement that lead teachers have a bachelor’s degree. 

“In the long run, you’re going to have kids who … are far ahead of the game of the previous generation that didn’t have that benefit,” he said.  

Noting that Oklahoma struggles with high rates of childhood trauma, adult incarceration, and lower-than-average life expectancy, he said, it’s “scary to think of where we’d be if we didn’t have things like this.”

A 2017 study of middle-schoolers who attended universal preschool in Oklahoma found that early math gains persisted beyond elementary school, and that alumni were less likely to have been retained and more likely to enroll in honors classes. 

In Colorado, even for those encouraged by such studies, the financial constraints imposed by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR, make a massive preschool expansion daunting. It also doesn’t help that voters rejected a proposal last November that would have chipped away at TABOR restrictions to raise more money for schools and roads. 

The latest effort to find money for universal free preschool — beyond the 6,000 spots in Polis’ budget request — hinges on a citizen-led ballot effort that could raise up to $300 million a year for preschool through a new nicotine tax. While Colorado voters have approved this kind of “sin tax” in the past, there’s sure to be stiff opposition from the tobacco industry and some pushback by those who worry such taxes disproportionately impact low-income people.

Steven Barnett, senior co-director of the research institute at Rutgers, said most states with universal free preschool have not used voter-approved financing mechanisms to pay for it. More often, lawmakers approve it as part of the state budget.

He said universal preschool can be an easier financial lift in states where K-12 enrollment is declining. Colorado isn’t there yet, but K-12 enrollment growth has flattened in recent years, after rising fairly steadily for decades. This year’s 879,000 K-12 enrollment increased by about 1,000 students over last year — or just 0.1%.

Shrinking K-12 enrollment, Barnett said, makes preschool expansion “much easier to do.”