As Universal Preschool rolls out, we can’t forget about infants, toddlers and their caregivers

Written by: Lauren Corboy
Date Posted: July 7, 2023

A woman and a babyColorado’s new Department of Early Childhood (CDEC) is launching our state’s Universal Preschool program (UPK) this fall, providing vital public support for care and education to many three- and four-year-olds and their families for the first time. UPK is a trailblazer in early childhood – just a handful of states and cities offer similar programs.  

As the UPK gets underway, we must take steps to ensure its growth does not exacerbate shortages in infant and toddler child care.  

Other states that have launched universal preschool have seen drops in the number of infant and toddler care providers, due in part to increased financial supports for providers serving preschool-aged children.  

Colorado has the opportunity to thoughtfully invest in policies that directly support infant and child care providers and families. 

Why early early childhood matters 

During the first three years of a child’s life, the brain forms more than one million new neural connections every second. This is the most rapid period of growth for the human brain – it is when the brain is most plastic and adaptable. Early childhood is the  window for building a young brain’s sturdy foundation so it can more deftly approach life’s challenges. Quality care provided by nurturing adults is a critical piece of this puzzle. 

Despite widespread evidence and public awareness of the importance of these years, care for our youngest children continues to be underfunded and undervalued.  

Many providers with infant and toddler programs already struggle to keep their doors open, due to a mix of factors that includes low teacher-to-child ratio requirements, high costs for families, high staff turnover, and burdensome insurance rates and facility requirements. This dynamic poses an ongoing challenge not just for the providers, but for children and caregivers. All kids deserve quality care – but for working families and mothers in particular, accessing care in today’s landscape can come at the cost of caregivers’ careers, stability, and way of life.  

One Colorado parent described her experiences to the Children’s Campaign: “The only reason I was able to secure child care for my son is because I added my name to a waitlist when I was only four months pregnant in December of 2017, so he could have a slot in August of 2018. I love the quality care my children receive, but I am hardly able to afford it – I have spent around $100,000 over the course of five years (for two children) and am now in credit card debt that will be nearly impossible to pay off. This includes the two discounts I get as an educator myself. We must find a solution.”  

Better incentives for preschool risk pulling providers away from infant and child care  

Operating costs for programs serving infants and toddlers are higher than those serving preschoolers. These programs require a lower adult-to-child ratio, meaning they need to hire more providers to serve fewer children. At the same time, the financial benefits for providing preschool services are frequently more generous than subsidies from the state and federal government for providing infant and toddler care. This can lead providers to opt to serve preschoolers instead of younger children – decreasing the number of infant and toddler programs in the process.  

Now, with the launch of UPK, the gap between subsidies for providers who serve preschoolers and those who serve infants and toddlers is even wider than before. If Colorado follows in the footsteps of other states with similar programs, more providers may choose to serve preschool-aged children instead of infants and toddlers simply to stay operational. This could lead to fewer slots for infants and toddlers, longer waitlists, higher costs for working families, and even an exodus from the workforce as parents quit their jobs in order to care for their young children. 

The Colorado Child Care Assistance Program (CCCAP), our state- and federally-funded child care subsidy program, helps to improve access to care for low-income Colorado families. Unfortunately, CCCAP is only funded to serve 9% of Colorado children whose families are eligible to receive this support, and the rates paid to providers in the program are based on what parents and caregivers can afford, rather than what it truly costs to provide quality care. This leaves providers across the state subsidizing their care so that families don’t have to bear the entire cost burden. 

What can Colorado do? 

States and localities across the nation have implemented innovative solutions for infants and toddlers, including: 

  • Creating incentives for infant and toddler providers: Multnomah County, Oregon, recognized the importance of prioritizing infant and toddler care early on. When the county implemented universal preschool, it simultaneously created the Infant and Toddler Slot Preservation Fund, which includes up to $25 million in incentives for infant and toddler providers in the state’s mixed delivery system.   
  • Supporting infant and child care providers and families: Washington, D.C. has also distinguished itself as a leader in this space. The 2018 Birth to Three for All DC Amendment creates subsidies for infant and toddler providers, increases their compensation, assists them with licensing, and supports families with copays for care.  

Colorado has also garnered attention for implementing creative solutions to combat infant and toddler care shortages. In 2019, the General Assembly passed Senate Bill 19-063, which required a report and corresponding strategic action plan to address a decrease in Family Child Care Homes (FCCH) and statewide infant and toddler child care. The plan’s recommendations included operational and regulation support, professional development, child care licensing support, and further policy review. 

Colorado used federal COVID-19 stimulus funding to put some of those ideas into practice, including support for Maternal Infant Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV), additional funding for early intervention services, targeted child care stabilization grants to infant-toddler providers, and quality improvement bonuses for infant-toddler child care providers. Unfortunately, stimulus funding is set to expire in September 2023 and September 2024. If Congress does not take action to prevent states from falling off this “child care funding cliff,” 70,000 programs nationwide are likely close, meaning up to 3.2 million children  could lose their access to child care. In Colorado, CDEC will have to prioritize which stimulus strategies to continue funding with limited resources. 

Advocates across the state are working hard to figure out how to meet the anticipated gap in infant and toddler care. The Raise Colorado Infant-Toddler Child Care Task Force meets monthly to strategize about legislative and budgetary advocacy priorities for 2024. Additionally, the Growing Our Future coalition is focused on updating Colorado’s inequitable tax policy so that we can better fund care across the entire life continuum.  

Protecting and expanding infant-toddler child care is one of the core priorities of the Children’s Campaign. As UPK begins to expand access to preschool for Colorado’s four-year-olds, legislators and advocates must come together to identify and advance policy solutions for infant and toddler care that uplift working families with young children and make the quality care that every child deserves more accessible.  

Lauren Corboy

About Lauren Corboy

Lauren works for the Children’s Campaign as an Early Childhood Policy Analyst. Prior to joining the team, she taught kindergarten and pre-K in Washington, D.C. for seven years. Through this experience, she gained an intimate understanding of the systemic barriers facing so many of our nation’s children. In order to assist in the work of combating these inequities, she earned her Masters degree in Education Policy and Leadership from American University. Prior to teaching, she earned her Masters in Public Health Policy from Emory University as well as Bachelors degrees in Political Science and History from George Washington University.