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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