Colorado’s efforts to improve the quality of its early childhood programs will get a moment in the spotlight Monday when U.S. Secretary of Education John King swings through Denver as part of a two-day tour calling attention to the issue.

King will tout Colorado Shines, the state’s year-old mandatory child care rating system that sets a high bar for providers seeking its top score and gives parents the chance to comparison shop.

Like other child care quality rating and improvement programs across the country, the initiative was kickstarted with money from Race to the Top, one of the Obama administration’s signature education initiatives.

King will visit Denver’s Mile High Early Learning, a Montessori-inspired center, on Monday morning. There, he will visit a preschool classroom accompanied by Anna Jo Haynes, the center’s president emeritus. Haynes is a fixture in the Colorado education community and the mother of Happy Haynes, an at-large Denver Public Schools board member who previously served as board president.

King then will take part in a roundtable discussion about early learning in Colorado, to be held at Denver’s Early Childhood Council at the Tramway Nonprofit Center in Denver’s Cole neighborhood. He will be joined by Deputy Assistant Secretary of Education Libby Doggett, Colorado Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, Interim Education Commissioner Katy Anthes and Department of Human Services Executive Director Reggie Bicha. (Editor’s note: state officials said Friday that Lynne will not be able to attend the roundtable).

In the works since 2010, Colorado Shines launched in February 2015 and is mandatory for the state’s roughly 4,600 licensed child care providers — both child care center and home-based providers. The new system replaced a volunteer program called Qualistar that was never widely used and — unlike Colorado Shines — charged providers a fee.

Child care providers are rated on a scale of 1 to 5 through Colorado Shines. The lowest level signals only that a provider is licensed by the state and meets basic health and safety standards. The highest ranking means the provider has gone through an in-depth process to demonstrate quality in everything from teacher-child interactions to financial record-keeping.

As Chalkbeat previously reported, the overwhelming majority of providers were given scores of 1 in the program’s first year. Backers of the system say that is understandable, as providers learn and adjust to new expectations.

In an interview Thursday, DHS executive director Bicha said he expects more providers to rise in the rating system as “friendly competition” develops in the child care market.

“People want to be better, know they can be better and challenge themselves to be better,” he said. “I think that is what we are going to see in Colorado Shines.”

Bicha said finding and affording trained, highly qualified staff is the biggest challenge facing providers. He noted that Colorado has taken steps to address that, including providing larger reimbursements for centers investing in high-quality staff, curriculum and food.

The state also has established micro-grant and micro-loan to help child care providers invest in their businesses.

Still, Colorado consistently ranks near the bottom nationally in state spending on preschool programs.

This will be King’s first visit to Colorado since his confirmation in March to succeed Arne Duncan as education secretary. Following his Denver visit, King will head to Delaware on Tuesday to highlight that state’s early childhood initiatives.