The Boulder Valley School District building in Boulder on Nov. 17, 2021. Credit: Anthony Albidrez

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The parent application for Colorado’s new free preschool program opened at 8 a.m. on Tuesday — a major milestone in the march toward the program’s launch next summer. 

The program, funded in part by a voter-approved nicotine tax, will offer 10 to 15 hours a week of tuition-free preschool to 4-year-olds statewide, with some eligible for 30 hours a week. In addition, some 3-year-olds will be eligible for 10 hours a week.

State officials expect about 30,000 children to opt into the universal preschool program in its first year. That’s about half the number that will be eligible. 

Here’s what families need to know about the online preschool application: 

Who gets free preschool and what age do they have to be?

Three groups of children qualify: 4-year-olds, some 3-year-olds who need extra help, and a small number of 5-year-olds who are too young for kindergarten.

Let us explain. The new preschool program is designed for children in the year before they go to kindergarten — children who turn 4 before the state’s Oct. 1 cutoff date. The state will pay for 15 hours a week of preschool for these students at no cost to parents. Some preschool providers may offer only 10 hours a week — for example, a school district that offers K-12 classes only four days a week. 

Some 4-year-olds will get 30 hours of free preschool a week, including those from lower-income families, who speak a language besides English at home, are homeless, in foster care, or have disabilities. 

The new preschool program will also cover 10 hours a week of preschool for 3-year-olds in these same groups. 

What about 5-year-olds who aren’t in kindergarten yet?

Some 5-year-olds will qualify for free preschool and some won’t. Children who live in school districts with kindergarten cutoff dates before Oct. 1 will qualify if they turn 5 after the district’s cutoff date and before Oct. 1. For example, a child in a district where children must turn 5 by Aug. 1 to attend kindergarten, will qualify for free preschool if they turn 5 in September. (The application may indicate these children are not eligible. State officials say families should contact the group coordinating universal preschool in their area if this happens. Search this county-by-county list to find contact information for the right local group.)

Five-year-olds who could go to kindergarten but have been held out by their families — a practice often called redshirting — won’t be able to get free preschool through the new state program. 

What do I need to fill out the application? Are there income requirements?

Many families will need about 15 minutes and not much else. The application is offered in English, Spanish, and Arabic, and parents should be able to complete the application on a cell phone or computer. 

Families whose household income qualifies their 4-year-olds for extra hours or allows them to enroll a 3-year-old will need to upload documents that prove their income. Families that earn up to 270% of the federal poverty limit — about $81,000 a year for a family of four — fall into this category.

If that describes you, this FAQ lays out which documents the state will accept for proof of household income.  

Families who qualify for 3-year-old preschool or extra hours of 4-year-old preschool for reasons other than income levels — perhaps their child has a disability or is learning English — won’t need to show proof of income.

Check this FAQ for details about which documents the state will accept for proof of household income.    

How do I know how many hours my child will get?

The online application system will tell you how many hours your child is eligible for after you enter a few pieces of information. There are four possibilities: 

  • Not eligible: Your child is too young, too old, or doesn’t live in Colorado.
  • 10 hours: If your child is 3 and meets one or more of the eligibility criteria.
  • 15 hours: If your child is 4. 
  • 30 hours: If your child is 4 and meets one or more of the eligibility criteria.

Can I pick my child’s preschool?

Yes. Families will be asked to pick up to five preschools they’d like their child to attend and will be able to rank their choices. Options include school-based preschools, church-based preschools, preschool programs inside child care centers, and state-licensed home-based preschools. 

Search and map functions are available to narrow down the choices. You can look for the program your child already attends or explore new options. Children will be prioritized for a spot in a preschool if they’re already enrolled there, if a sibling is enrolled there, or if a parent works there. 

There are some cases where preschool providers may not accept a preschool match made by the application system. For example, a school-based preschool might turn away a child who lives outside district boundaries or an employer-based preschool that mainly provides care to children of company employees may not enroll the child of a non-employee. (During the application process, parents will see a blue banner indicating if selected preschools prioritize certain students.) 

My child has a disability. What preschools can I pick?

If your child has a special education plan — officially called an Individualized Education Program, or IEP — your child will be served in a preschool classroom run by your school district. That’s because of the way special education laws are written.

If your child doesn’t have an IEP and you’re worried about a developmental delay, contact Child Find, the state’s early intervention program for 3- to 5-year-olds.

My child is 3. What preschools can I pick?

Three-year-olds will mostly be served in preschool classrooms run by their school districts. Some 3-year-olds may have non-school options, but only if their district partners with private preschools. That’s because of the way the state’s preschool law is written.

Parents of 3-year-olds won’t be able to select specific preschools on the state application. Instead, they’ll select their local school district. That’s because school districts are in charge of matching 3-year-olds to specific preschool programs.

What if I don’t see my child’s provider on the list?

Preschool providers don’t have to participate in the state’s universal preschool program, but more than 1,000 have chosen to and more are expected to sign up. State officials say if parents don’t find the preschool they want listed in the application system, they should reach out to the preschool provider and encourage them to sign up. 

What if I need more hours than what my preschooler is eligible for?

You can still pay for extra hours above and beyond what the state covers for free, as long as the preschool offers more hours. You can also see if you qualify for financial help through other means, such as the state’s child care subsidy program for low-income families, called the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program.

Do I need to fill out the application right away?

You can, but you won’t be shut out if you wait a couple days or weeks. It’s not a first-come, first-served system. That said, families who fill out the application during the first application window will have more options and find out sooner which preschool they matched with. 

There will be at least two application windows: 

  • The first runs from Jan. 17 to Feb. 14. Families will find out their match around March 17. 
  • The state will decide the dates for the second application window once the first round closes. 
  • After the second window closes, state officials will decide whether to have a third window or move to first-come, first-served matching.

I filled out the state’s preschool application. Do I have to fill out my school district’s school choice application, too?

Possibly. Some districts also want parents to fill out school choice forms if they want a spot in a district-run preschool. That includes Denver and Jeffco, the two largest school districts. If you choose a district-run option, check your local district’s enrollment website to see if they want you to apply there as well.

The state application will determine whether your child qualifies for free preschool and if so, for how many hours. It will also match 4-year-olds to a specific preschool. The district school choice system collects more information so that children can be enrolled in the program they matched with. For 3-year-olds, the district choice system is where families get matched with a specific preschool.

If families fail to fill out the district choice form, district officials they’ll reach out and work with them to get it done. In some cases, delays in filling out the district form could mean families end up with fewer preschool options.

What if I decide against the preschool my child was matched with?

You can reject the preschool match the state makes for you. However it’s possible you’ll have to resubmit your application.

When does free preschool start in Colorado?

Not until August or September, whenever the preschool program you matched with starts. Families will find out their matches sooner, but tuition coverage doesn’t kick in until late summer.

My child qualifies for free preschool. Can my preschool charge extra tuition or fees?

Yes and no. It depends how many hours of care your child needs each week. 

Preschools participating in Colorado’s universal preschool program cannot charge families additional money — tuition, supply fees, or activity fees — for the free hours the child is eligible for through the state program.

However, preschools are allowed to charge for any additional hours they provide to a child above the number of free hours granted through the state. For example, if a 4-year-old receives 20 hours of preschool a week, but is only eligible for 15 free hours, the provider can charge tuition for the additional five hours, plus supply or activity fees for that extra time.

I have more questions. What should I do?

You have three options: 

  • Check out the state’s universal preschool frequently asked questions page.
  • Contact the local group that’s coordinating the universal preschool program in your county or region. Here’s a county-by-county list of all the groups — the state calls them Local Coordinating Organizations or LCOs — with email addresses. 
  • Contact the state’s help desk from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, excluding state holidays. The number is 303-866-5223 and the email is cdec_upkcolorado@state.co.us

Do you have a question you don’t see answered here or can’t find the answer to elsewhere? Let us know at co.tips@chalkbeat.org and we’ll do our best to find an answer. 

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news organization covering public education.

Ann Schimke is a senior reporter at Chalkbeat, covering early childhood issues and early literacy. Contact Ann at aschimke@chalkbeat.org.

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