Giving Thought: House bill first step toward a true early-childhood system

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought
Aspen Community Foundation, Lauder event, Aug. 13, 2018.
Steve Mundinger

Aspen Community Foundation is a big believer in early-childhood education, and we have some good news to report for our young children from the state Capitol.

House Bill 2019-1052 has the potential to make high-quality child care much more accessible across the state. It passed both chambers of the Colorado General Assembly with bipartisan support March 20 and is on its way Gov. Jared Polis’ desk. We’re optimistic that he will sign it.

HB19-1052 authorizes the creation of early-childhood development service districts for children from birth through 8 years of age. These services could include early care and education, physical and mental health, and developmental services, including prevention and intervention. These districts are then able to seek voter approval to levy property taxes and sales and use taxes to generate revenue for early childhood development services.

More than 2,000 special districts already exist in our state, and they fund services ranging from fire protection to sanitation, public libraries and parks. HB19-1052 doesn’t spend any state money or take any specific action, other than to allow the creation of special districts specifically for early-childhood purposes. Voters within the district’s boundaries would have to approve the idea first.

Here’s why HB19-1052 could be a game-changer for the Aspen to Parachute region. For years, ACF and other early-childhood advocates have sought to provide high-quality, affordable early-childhood education throughout the region. But that’s a tall order in a region that includes three counties, nine towns and four school districts. By creating one special district to encompass the entire economically integrated region, we could reduce the cost of local preschool spaces through the collection of a modest property or sales tax and help make it affordable for many more families.

“A lot of people live in Glenwood Springs but work in Aspen, for example, and they’re regularly commuting across political boundaries,” said Cody Belzley of Common Good Consulting, an advocate for the legislation. “We’re trying to empower communities to work across those boundaries in a regional way.”

In some ways, the genesis of HB19-1052 began with ACF’s Aspen to Parachute Cradle to Career Initiative, which has the goals of ensuring children are ready for kindergarten and graduate from high school ready for college and career. The Cradle to Career partners recognized that in addition to creating more space for preschool and child care, they also needed to address affordability and quality. There are programs that help make preschool more affordable for low-income and at-risk children and, as a community foundation, ACF has provided grants to nonprofit preschools to help reduce the cost for families. But these efforts aren’t enough to serve everyone.

A diverse group of school, business and nonprofit leaders, known as the Rocky Mountain Preschool Coalition, was formed to look at potential policy levers and, ultimately, build awareness and public will to increase public funding for early childhood education. Led by MANAUS, a local nonprofit focused on addressing social issues in the community, the coalition has been gathering feedback from the community and looking at models for how the tax dollars could be allocated.

“The only way to level the playing field for all our kiddos throughout our diverse mountain communities is to advocate for a universal, publicly funded early childhood education initiative,” said Cindy Kahn, director of MANAUS. “Prevention is much less expensive than remediation. You can either pay today or pay more tomorrow. We owe it to our community to offer this option.”

Other regions support the legislation, too, from front range counties such as Denver, Boulder and Larimer, to Western Slope areas in San Miguel, Summit and Mesa counties. And there are models in the state that show how this could work. The Denver Preschool Program and Kids First in Aspen are examples of communities that are successfully employing tax dollars to make preschool more affordable and higher quality.

If the bill is indeed signed into law, that is only the first step. Local governments across the Aspen-to-Parachute region (or any region that wishes to form a special district) would have to develop a service plan, a district court would have to approve the plan’s inclusion on an election ballot, and voters would have to approve the ballot measure.

With the bill’s passing in the Colorado General Assembly, we hope and expect that the governor will give its citizens this important tool, which has the potential to improve thousands of Colorado children’s lives.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.