Pre-K bills are in motion; price tag is main concern

Gov. Peter Shumlin interacts with children at Montpelier's Family Center, a center for early child-care education. VTD Photo/Nat Rudarakanchana

Gov. Peter Shumlin interacts with children at Montpelier’s Family Center, a center for early child-care education. VTD Photo/Nat Rudarakanchana

Lawmakers in the Vermont House and Senate are drafting bills that would expand educational programs for 3- and 4-year-olds.

The legislation would make it easier for families living in areas of the state without programs for young children to get access to programs in other school districts.

The pre-K education initiative is a key component of Gov. Peter Shumlin’s education plan.

Districts aren’t required to offer early education programs nor are children required to enroll — so the bill isn’t expected to prompt a sudden influx of 3- and 4-year olds into the pre-K system. Proponents say providing early education opportunities will help young Vermonters better prepare for school at a period in their lives when their brains are absorbing information at an astonishing rate.

Rep. Sarah Buxton, D-Tunbridge, a co-sponsor of the bill, says the legislation won’t “be life-changing for every 3- and 4-year-old in the state, but there are certainly communities where it’s going to make a real difference.”

Under the legislation, school districts that don’t offer public programs must pay a statewide tuition rate for children to attend at least 10 hours of pre-K per week in any prequalified program. The hope is that by establishing a uniform tuition rate and by creating consistent criteria for approving programs, the law would allow more children to participate in pre-K.

Rep. Johannah Donovan, D-Burlington, the chair of the House Education Committee, said a primary purpose of the legislation is to afford greater access to pre-K for low-income families living in affluent towns. According to Donovan, many of the roughly 40 towns that don’t offer public pre-K programs have a critical mass of wealthy families who enroll their children in private programs.

“Eighty plus percent of school districts are doing this because of the research and the efficacy of it, so to have communities like Colchester, Rutland, Stowe, and Woodstock not do this represents, to me a huge inequity,” Donovan said.

In his budget address, Shumlin pledged to help cover the start-up costs for new pre-K programs.

The proposed legislation doesn’t directly set aside funds for those costs; instead it alters the way students are counted. The state reimburses schools for average daily membership, or on per-pupil basis. (The proposed rate for next year is $9,151 for each student.) The proposed change in the per pupil count would reduce the upfront costs for starting a program.

The bill won’t be a panacea, however, according to Buxton, who serves on the House Education Committee. The 10-hour minimum, she says, is just a start, and some parents will still have trouble securing spots in pre-K programs, depending on the convenience of the location.

Manuela Fonseca, the early education coordinator for the Agency of Education, said the agency “overwhelmingly supports” expanding pre-K access, but it would like the minimum number of hours to be higher. Fonseca also said that by requiring districts to send tuition money directly to programs, the bill fails to take into account some current arrangements in which school districts support pre-K programs for children in their precinct, but not necessarily in the form of direct monetary compensation. Some districts, Fonseca explained, supply an accredited teacher to the program rather than individual tuition payments.

The bill itself doesn’t have many detractors, but supporters agree that it could lose momentum when the matter of funding comes to the fore. That’s because the state budget has been squeezed by slow tax revenue growth as the economy limps out of the Great Recession.

The question lawmakers will face — whether or not Vermont taxpayers can stomach another increase in property taxes — is especially salient following the House vote last week to approve a 5-cent increase in the statewide property tax.

The House Committee on Education homed in on the bill’s price tag on Friday. The Joint Fiscal Office and the Agency of Education estimate that the total cost will be just shy of $10 million, and the increase would occur incrementally over the course of five years.

Budget estimators expect the bill to increase pre-K enrollment by 24 percent. Total enrollment would top out at about 60 percent in 2020. This estimate assumes enrollment will increase at a rate of 6 percent per year and spur a quarter of a cent increase in the statewide property tax for each of the next five years, beginning in fiscal year 2015.

That number isn’t set in stone — the state doesn’t actually know how many 3- and 4-year-olds reside in the state so estimators used a surrogate count of kindergartners and first-graders that doesn’t take into account future fluctuations in the pre-K population.

Donovan said she thinks the dollar amount may actually be less than predicted for two reasons — she doesn’t expect enrollment to climb so rapidly, and since Vermont’s population is on the decline, she expects the overall number of 3- and 4-year-olds to wane.

Buxton said she was bracing for an even higher figure so she was encouraged to hear the JFO’s estimate. “It was such a miniscule amount,” Buxton said. “This is really not going to have a strong financial impact on the Education Fund.”

“Nonetheless,” she added, “I don’t think it’s possible to leave this building on any given day without giving consideration to the pressures on the Education Fund. We are living in a climate where we are hypersensitive to any type of pressure. I think the fate of this bill has to do with our courage to take steps to make an investment that will benefit our workforce in 25 years.”

Alicia Freese

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11 Comments on "Pre-K bills are in motion; price tag is main concern"

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rosemarie jackowski
3 years 2 months ago

The idea that parents are inferior when it comes to teaching children is illogical. It is one more attack on families. Many parents are capable of teaching their children, not only in the early years but also through high school and beyond. The studies showing improved achievement from Pre-K are inconsistent. Many studies show that any ‘gain’ from early childhood ‘institutionalized’ education is lost by the time the child reaches the 3rd grade. If early childhood education is important, and we all agree that it is – why not allow it to take place in the home. Teachers unions often… Read more »

eddie fisher
3 years 2 months ago

Pre school for three year olds , Please ! Just one more attempt by the state government to mushroom thier size and tax base revenues ! If you need a babysitter , call me , otherwise take care of your own babies ! Let kids be kids for Gods sake ! Many of Shumlins plans are just more fat for government!

rosemarie jackowski
3 years 2 months ago

Or they can call me. I offer free child care. There are a lot of Grandmas out there who are good at taking care of little ones.

Dave Bellini
3 years 2 months ago

Is there any thought given under the Golden Dome to take steps lower property taxes? The trend in Vermont is less students = more spending. Calling pre-K “education” is so it can be paid for through property taxes. What’s next? All day care paid for through property taxes? Offer all Vermont students 4 years of college free and pay for it with property taxes? Many school districts have done nothing to curb the increase in costs and the legislature still wants to grow the pie.

rosemarie jackowski
3 years 2 months ago

If the trend continues, when Vermont has a zero student population, the property tax will increase to infinity.

Theodore Hoppe
3 years 1 month ago

My question to is:
How can Mooresville, NC educate students for half the cost of what Vermont spends and have better test scores, better attendance, and better graduation rates? The answer is found in a New York Times article from over a year ago.
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/13/education/mooresville-school-district-a-laptop-success-story.html?pagewanted=1&_r=0

cate bell
3 years 1 month ago

thanks for posting the link to this article very interesting and informative.

Tony Lolli
3 years 2 months ago

There is research proof the intended gains from programs such as the long-lived Head Start Program do not deliver as intended. Quote from the federal Administration of Children and Families, Office Of Planning Research and Evaluation, Report of the Third Grade Follow-up to the Head Start Impact Study (Dec 21, 2012, page xviii). “In summary, there were initial positive impacts from having access to Head Start, but by the end of 3rd grade there were very few impacts found for either cohort in any of the four domains of cognitive, social-emotional, health and parenting practices. The few impacts that were… Read more »

John Greenberg
3 years 2 months ago

Tony Lolli vastly oversimplifies the HHS study he cites and unlike the study itself, ignores the plethora of other studies coming to quite different conclusions. First, unlike Lolli, the study is aware that while the overall cohort might show little improvement, specific subgroups DID show improvement: “In addition to looking at Head Start’s average impact across the diverse set of children and families who participate in the program, this study also examined how impacts varied among different types of participants. There is evidence that for some outcomes, Head Start had a differential impact for some subgroups of children over others.… Read more »

Arthur Hamlin
3 years 2 months ago

When our kids were that age I was working as a housekeeper at our local hospital cleaning doctors offices. We sent our kids to a local cooperative pre-school because we felt that it was a good thing so we made it a priority and figured out how to afford it on our low income. Other people can figure it out too. The State should not be in the business of taking care of everything for everybody, and we can’t afford it!

Mary Barrosse Schwartz
2 years 1 month ago

Argh, don’t you just hate it when people are ill-informed or just plain wrong on the internet? I could be up all night arguing with many of you people. We’re spending $1.5B on education in Vermont — and spending is up significantly despite declining enrollment – (20% decrease in students, with 15% increase in spending — or the other way around, but does it matter??) We’re talking about a bill that is $1.4m, which could help to leverage greater accountability from the $23m already being spent. Evaluation and monitoring is part of this bill – which is needed. You people… Read more »

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