Abbey Homburger started working two jobs to help pay for preschool for her twin boys. But when she found out about the Denver Preschool Program, everything changed, she said.
The Denver Preschool Program is a tax-supported program that helps families living in Denver afford preschool for their 3-and 4-year-olds. Tuition support is given based on the income that a family makes. Families can calculate how much tuition assistance they can receive on the program’s website.
This November, ballot measure 2P asks Denver voters to decide if the program should remain in place without raising additional taxes.
Before going to preschool, Homburger’s kids were going to work with her as young as 2 while she was working full-time at a learning center in Denver.
“It was really hard to afford childcare for them. I didn’t get much of a work discount – they both have special needs so it was really important for me that they came to my school,” Homburger said.
When it was time to start preschool at age 4, the cost was about $2,400 a month for both of her children, Homburger said.
“I used to deliver Door Dash when they would go to bed. My husband was working full-time and he would hang at home with them,” Homburger said. “Basically he was covering all the bills and I was covering groceries and them going to school. At the end of the month, it cost me more money and I would have to work more so that they could go to school but it was something that was really important to me.”
Homburger didn’t know about the Denver Preschool Program until she started working at the learning center.
“It was a total game-changer. I didn’t have to work a second job anymore,” Homburger said.
Back on the ballot this November
This November, Denver voters will decide whether to continue supporting the existing voter-approved 0.15% sales and use tax that funds the Denver Preschool Program, “until such authority is altered or repealed by the Denver City Council or Denver voters,” states the ballot question. If it is not approved, the program is set to expire in 2026. There are no opposition campaigns for ballot question 2P.
Denver voters first approved a ballot initiative of 0.12% sales tax to fund the Denver Preschool Program in 2004. In 2014, reauthorization increased the amount of sales tax to fund the program. Denver voters approved the higher rate of 0.15% in 2016.
The program goes back to Denver ballots every 10 years, for reapproval.
A mission to provide tuition assistance
The mission of the Denver Preschool Program is to provide Denver families with tuition assistance for their 3 and 4-year-olds at high-quality preschools. Since 2006, the program has served about 65,000 children. It distributed about $18.3 million in tuition support between 2021 and 2022, serving 60% of 4-year-olds in Denver.
Families who live in the city and county of Denver are able to choose from more than 250 preschools. Around 60% of the school providers are a part of Denver Public Schools. The other 40% are community providers.
President and CEO of the Denver Preschool Program, Elsa Holguin, said going back to the ballot this year is the best time to do so, as polls conducted with the Denver Preschool Program in February revealed a 78% approval rating among unlikely voters, Holguin said.
Holguin has been involved with the Denver Preschool Program since its beginning, when it was called the Children’s Tax Initiative.
“The most pressing issue for early childhood was funding because we know that quality preschool delivers children that are much better prepared through school, through life,” Holguin said. “Preschool is expensive because unlike K-12 education, it is not publicly funded. It is primarily the responsibility of the parents.”
Holguin added that about 70% of the cost of preschool is paid by parents, and the average cost of care in Denver is $12,000 per year.
The average Denver Preschool Program grant that families received between 2021 and 2022 was $790 per month.
Denver Preschool Program also has a program for 3-year-olds. It got its start three years ago and looks at high-need families that are living under 270% of the poverty rate, or making about $80,000 a year for a family of four. Denver Preschool Program can provide two years of free full-time preschool for families in Denver that are high-need.
Helping teachers amid shortages, improving schools
Challenges for many schools in Denver and across the state have been trying to retain teachers during staffing shortages while keeping up with salary demands.
More than 80% of Denver Preschool Program’s preschool partners have earned a quality level of three or higher from Colorado Shines, which is provided by the Colorado Department of Early Childhood and rates all licensed preschools in Colorado on a scale of one through five. Denver Preschool Program will pick up providers that are rated at level one and grow them to a level three through coaching, training and certifying more teachers.
“We have been able to support preschools with enrollment bonuses so that they can recruit teachers and hire them with some kind of incentive,” Holguin said.
Retention bonuses are also given to keep the staff that preschools in the program already have.
“While we’re doing everything to support and continue to enhance their skills, we also need to figure out how to enhance their salaries,” Holguin said. “Workforce is probably one of our biggest issues.”
Complimenting the statewide Universal Preschool program
Colorado implemented its universal preschool program (UPK Colorado) beginning in the 2023-2024 school year to give better access across the state for families enrolling their child in preschool. Unlike the Denver Preschool Program, UPK Colorado does not provide full-day preschool.
And unlike UPK Colorado, the Denver Preschool Program is specific to those who reside in the city and county of Denver. Additionally, the Denver Preschool Program provides credits after the 15 hours a week that the statewide program covers, offering many families the opportunity to send their child to full-day preschool.
Holguin said there is a need for full-day preschool, particularly among families with parents who work a full-time job and can’t afford full-time preschool. A full day for preschool is six hours per day while an extended day can be up to 10 hours a day.
For Homburger, the greatest impact of the tuition savings from the Denver Preschool Program was giving her more time to spend with her family.
“I didn’t have to go (to work) on a Saturday. We can go to the zoo or the museum,” Homburger said. “I think everyone should know about it (the Denver Preschool Program) and I think it’s really important that we keep it.”