Publicly funded pre-K bill passes in House after heated debate

Publicly funded pre-K bill passes in House after heated debate

Update: The House gave final approval to H. 270 on May 1, 2013. The vote was 95-43. Discussion on the second day was brief, but lawmakers reiterated their concern that the legislation will increase education spending.

Helping along the cognitive development of 3- and 4-year-olds isn’t a hotly contested topic in the Vermont Legislature. But a bill to expand access to pre-kindergarten education sparked a heated debate on the House floor today. Lawmakers voted 97-43 to give it preliminary approval, but only after a number of them protested its impact on property tax payers.

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 talks to children at Montpelier’s Family Center, a center for early child-care education. Photo by Nat Rudarakanchana

H.270 requires school districts to pay for at least 10 hours per week of pre-K education for 35 weeks a year.

Sixteen percent of school districts — about 40 towns — do not offer publicly funded pre-K. Some of those districts voluntarily pay for children to attend a private or public pre-K program; H.270 would mandate this payment, and it would set a statewide tuition rate, which could be adjusted regionally.

A district will be able to choose to give parents free financial rein to access any qualified pre-K provider, public or private, in the state or to limit them to programs within a defined region. (The region must be at least as large as the school district.) Parents can petition for a waiver, but it remains up to the district to grant one or not.

On the floor, there was a rhetorical tug of war between the bill’s supporters, who stressed the evidence showing the value of pre-K, and its opponents, who sought to redirect the debate toward the cost of expanding the program.

Education Committee chair, Rep. Johannah Donovan, D-Burlington, and Rep. Adam Greshin, I-Warren, said H.270 is about making early education “equitable” across the state.

Donovan described the bill as an “investment that pays real dividends,” suggesting it may defray some special education expenses down the road.

Greshin said H.270 simply expedites an ongoing trend — pre-K enrollment is already on the rise, so sooner or later, school districts will have to withstand its cost.

About 36 percent of the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds attended a state-approved pre-K program in fiscal year 2012, according to the Agency of Education (AOE). The total estimated cost is $14.6 million or $3,600 per child.

The Joint Fiscal Office and AOE estimate that under H.270 the cost of pre-K would increase by just under $10 million over five years. This projection assumes that pre-K participation will rise from 36 percent to 60 percent during that time period.

Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, joined a number of Republicans in speaking out on the floor against what she called a “partially funded mandate on the towns.”

During the Democratic caucus prior to floor debate, several other lawmakers aired similar concerns.

“If this is a state priority, the state ought to be willing to step up and pay for it,” Browning said.

Browning proposed an unsuccessful amendment that would have paid for the expansion through the General Fund, rather than the Education Fund, thereby alleviating the additional tax burden that will fall on school districts as a result of increased enrollment.

“This pre-K bill is a moment to think about what burden we already have on the property tax. … If you vote on my amendment, you are voting to lessen the burden on the property tax,” Browning told the body.

Reps. Republican Robert Bouchard and Democrat Jim Condon, both of Colchester — one of the districts without a public pre-K program — said their town can’t withstand a higher tax burden.

Greshin countered that a district could actually lower its tax rate by starting a pre-K program, because an increased pupil count could lower its per-pupil spending.

“The financial consequences are not obvious. Some districts may reduce their per-pupil spending,” he said. “To assume that you’re going to increase [this spending] … is erroneous.”

Floor debate on H.270 was repeatedly postponed during the last several weeks, while Democratic leadership and the bill’s drafters quelled concerns within their caucus.

The bill is up for final approval tomorrow. Then it will go to the Senate.

Alicia Freese

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