Gov. Jared Polis visits with preschoolers at the Maddox early childhood center in the Englewood school district in 2019.

By the fall of 2023, all 4-year-old children in Colorado will be able to attend preschool for free, thanks to new legislation signed into law on Monday. 

House Bill 1295 will establish a long-promised universal preschool program and a new Department of Early Childhood. Under the bill, the program will begin in 2023, providing 10 hours per week of free preschool for all children the year before they enter kindergarten.

Gov. Jared Polis signed the bill on Monday, touting the legislation as an accomplishment of his administration. Polis has called for free preschool since he was running for governor in 2017.

“Today, we are celebrating the final milestone of turning the vision of free universal preschool for every child into a reality in Colorado,” Polis said. “There is no better investment than an investment in education and our kids.”

The universal preschool program will save Colorado parents an average of $4,300 per year in child care costs, according to state estimates. Under the bill, parents may choose a preschool provider themselves within their community.

The state Senate passed the Democrat-sponsored bill in a 24-11 vote in April, following the House’s 43-19 vote in March.

“We are doing something historic,” said Senate President Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, who sponsored the bill. “Success for Colorado starts with support for the youngest Coloradans. As we continue to build back from this pandemic and folks across the state continue to return to work, we need to be able to provide parents with child care opportunities that are easy to navigate and also won’t break the bank.”

Though the bill received some bipartisan support, some Republican lawmakers voted against it.

Republican lawmakers proposed nearly a dozen changes to the bill on the Senate and House floors, all of which were rejected. This included efforts to delay the bill’s implementation a full year. Some opponents raised issue with the Department of Early Childhood that will be established under the bill.

“Government continues to grow and grow and grow dramatically. Since 2019, we have added 14 offices of government,” Sen. Paul Lundeen, R-Monument, said on the Senate floor while voting against the bill. “This creates a new department, a massive department. Friends, colleagues, beware. Government is growing fast in the state of Colorado.”

Supporters of the bill said the Department of Early Childhood will seek to boost access to early education by creating a “one stop shop” of state services.

Currently, early childhood programs are spread across multiple agencies with different eligibility requirements and funding streams, making it difficult for families to navigate, supporters say. Under the bill, the programs will be consolidated under the new department to streamline the system and create a single application for all early childhood programs.

“Now families can go to one place, fill out one application and not leave anything on the table when it comes to services for their children,” said bill sponsor Sen. Janet Buckner, D-Aurora. “I couldn't be happier and I couldn't be more proud.”

The universal preschool program and Department of Early Childhood will cost more than $365 million through 2024, according to state estimates. More than $190 million will come from taxes on tobacco and nicotine products passed by Colorado voters in 2020. Another $127 million will come from the state’s general fund or education fund.

Colorado's policymakers passed legislation in 2021 and 2022 to create and fund the Department of Early Childhood, as well as to create a transition plan and recommendations for universal preschool.

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