Establishing and maintaining a voter-approved children’s fund is hard work, and only a select group of people across the country work in this space. So in mid-April, Children’s Funding Project and the Denver Preschool Program hosted the first of several site visits to voter-approved children’s funds planned for this year. These visits, which are a new feature of our voter-approved children’s funds community of practice, provide fund leaders an opportunity to engage in conversation and dig into the weeds of what it takes to successfully build, maintain, and sustain a voter-approved children’s fund. The 28 attendees included members from our voter-approved children’s fund community of practice, local implementation and communications experts, philanthropy, community and state leaders, and groups pursuing ballot initiatives in their local communities.

We chose to visit Denver Preschool Program in Colorado because it is a long-standing, highly regarded, and successful universal preschool program funded by a dedicated sales tax. The program’s journey from a hard-fought victory on razor-thin margins in 2006 to winning a resounding 78% of the vote in its most recent (and final) reauthorization in November 2023 is remarkable.

The program is available to all Denver 4-year-olds in their last year of preschool before kindergarten and qualifying 3-year-olds, with priority given to families experiencing financial hardships. Since 2006, Denver Preschool Program has distributed $185 million in tuition credits and nearly $30 million in quality improvement grants to 268 licensed providers in public, home, and community-based preschool programs. Denver Preschool Program uses its long-running evaluation data to show that its students are more likely to read at grade level, miss fewer days of school, and less likely to repeat a year of school.

During our visit, Denver Preschool Program leaders provided history and context about the program’s journey and revealed solutions to tough challenges they’ve overcome in the last 17 years. Although the event had a packed agenda, it also included networking time and a fun dinner for all to connect and relax. The conversations during the visit were energetic and full of curious questions from the other attendees. “I carry a lot of the weight of ‘are we going to be successful?’ Emotionally, being in a space with people who have done this and been successful is cathartic,” said Rev. John C. Jones, president of HOPE Toledo, who is leading efforts in Toledo, OH, to pursue a ballot measure to establish a children’s fund to support early childhood education.

During the site visit, attendees explored topics ranging from how to manage the changing political landscape, equitable implementation of a fund, child outcomes, and workforce support. Christina Taylor, executive director of Larimer County’s Early Childhood Council in Colorado, summed up the meeting for many attendees, “I came here feeling burnt out and am leaving feeling energized.”

Below are two takeaways from the visit:

1. “Everyone has a piece of ownership over the success of these programs.” —Elsa Holguín, president and CEO of Denver Preschool Program

Voter-approved children’s funds do not happen without a continuing commitment from advocates, policymakers, and community partners. We witnessed a profound sense of pride and ownership from the Denver Preschool Program staff and local attendees throughout the visit. This confirmed that involving more people in the process of building, implementing, and sustaining voter-approved children’s funds builds lifelong champions and cultivates a deep, long-standing connection that contributes to the program’s success.

2. “We have 17 years worth of longitudinal data, so we can use our own data to understand the long-term benefits of our preschool program.” —Dr. Cristal Cisneros, senior director of evaluation and impact at Denver Preschool Program

At Denver Preschool Program, funding for evaluation is a dedicated budget line item, and the organization does not have to rely on philanthropy or grant funding to sustain this work. This structure allows program leaders to contract with researchers and universities to conduct annual program evaluations and longitudinal studies of short- and long-term children’s outcomes. Having these results helps communicate the program’s impact back to communities, which is essential for reauthorization campaigns and reporting to oversight boards. Beyond the reporting uses, investing in evaluation over time allows them to build robust data infrastructure and see time-over-time trends in the data, which is then used to improve program policy.

We are grateful to the Denver Preschool Program for hosting an engaging and energizing site visit. It was a unique and important opportunity for current and prospective fund managers to learn from each other and connect with others who are creating, maintaining, and sustaining voter-approved children’s funds. We hope to continue the momentum and cannot wait for our next site visit at Cincinnati Preschool Promise in Ohio in July!

Children’s Funding Project’s voter-approved children’s fund community of practice and our series of site visits are supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Additional financial support for this site visit was provided by the Buell Foundation and MetrixIQ.

Marina Mendoza is senior manager of early childhood impact and Olivia Allen is co-founder and vice president of strategy and advocacy at Children’s Funding Project.