Preschool programs to get state support; universal pre-kindergarten bill approved by Senate, House and endorsed by governor

The state of Vermont is poised to adopt a universal pre-kindergarten program for 3- and 4-year-olds.

The new law will require school districts to offer at least 10 hours of instruction for 35 weeks to any preschool-aged child. The state will reimburse districts of qualified pre-kindergarten programs offered by private or public providers.

More than half of Vermont children are not ready for school when they enter kindergarten, according to a recent study from the Agency of Education.

Children from low-income families are more likely to struggle in school and perform poorly on standardized tests, according to data from the Vermont Agency of Education.

Educators, business and children’s advocacy groups have pressed the Legislature to enhance support for the program for several years. They want to ensure that all children have access to preschool.

While most of the state’s 270-plus districts already have programs for pre-K students, 37 do not. The universal pre-K bill will bring about 1,800 additional 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds into preschool programs. The total number of children who would take advantage of the program is expected to be about 6,000, or 60 percent of the state’s 11,284 preschool-aged children.

Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, argued on the Senate floor last week that making pre-K universal is a matter of fairness and equity.

“We have a situation in Vermont where pre-K is paid for by every property taxpayer, but depending on where you live, families do not have equal access to pre-K,” Mullin said.

Students are coming to school not ready to learn and time is spent bringing them up to speed, Mullin said. Reaching children early, he said, may help reduce special education costs and in the long term reduce incarceration rates among teenagers.

The total cost per year is $26 million; the expansion of the program, included in the total, is $9.6 million.

The Vermont Senate passed H.270 after heated debate and a close vote on a crucial amendment (17-13) Friday that removed a trigger that would have delayed implementation of the law. On Monday, the Senate passed the bill (19-9), which will go into effect July 1, 2015. The House approved the legislation at the end of April.

Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee put a trigger in the bill and argued that the expansion of the program is too costly.

Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, chair of Senate Appropriations, said no one disputes the research on early childhood brain development, but she said her committee wants to see data measured against benchmarks for the program.

More broadly, she is concerned about growing pressures on the Education Fund and the impact the legislation will have on property taxpayers and the statewide rate which will go up by 20 percent over a three-year period through 2016. Kitchel characterized universal pre-K as an unfunded mandate.

“The question is whether we want, at this time, whether we want to accelerate spending,” Kitchel said.

Gov. Peter Shumlin has said he will sign the bill. “My thanks to lawmakers for their hard work on this thoughtful plan to give all Vermont’s 3- and 4-year-olds access to high quality pre-kindergarten education,” Shumlin said in a statement. “Investing in our youngest Vermonters is both the right thing to do and the smart thing to do. When children and families thrive, Vermont thrives. The vast majority of Vermont communities, 87 percent, already offer early learning. Now access to strong programs for young children will no longer depend on where you live. I am proud to live in a state that will provide every child an opportunity to arrive at kindergarten ready to learn.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 6:03 a.m. May 6.

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Anne Galloway

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  • Don Peabody

    Wow. I wish I’d been paying closer attention to this and queried my Reps. Ms. Kitchel’s concerns are valid, but mine go in a (perhaps) different direction: It appears to me this will result in more support for private education (especially church schools) rather than expansion of public education for pre-schoolers. Sounds like a voucher system, through the back door, to me, and vouchers by any other name smell just as rank.

    • John McClaughry

      Vouchers put educational power in parents and children. What is so “rank” about that?
      Are they foolish to choose St J Academy and Lyndon Institute?

    • John McClaughry

      Why is it that liberals are so eager to spend millions of dollars on ALL pre-K kids, instead of concentrating the aid on the most poor, needy, vulnerable, and disproportionately non-white deprived kids who are hard pressed to catch up?

    • Jason Farrell

      I attached a link to this post that connects to a vtdigger article written by Alicia Freese back in April of 2013, when this bill was introduced.

      It appears to me in reading the current language of the bill that legislators did make an attempt to address concerns regarding potential state and federal constitutional violations by restating in the bill that which is already implicit in all state law.

  • Rep. Sarah Buxton

    The bill requires the Secretary of Education to review the programs that are (and would) be eligible to ensure that public funding of nonsecular education does not occur.

    • Don Peabody

      Thanks, Sarah. That’s reassuring.

    • Amy Corrigan

      It certainly is reassuring – now we know the State will be able to feed psychotropic drugs to 3, 4 and 5 year olds because they’re diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder, commonly referred to as Normal Childhood Development. What a creative way to create a whole new class of children dependent on the State because they spent their developmental years in a drug-induced haze.

    • Ed McFarren

      Two things: Did Representative Buxton really want to assure that public funding of “nonsecular education does not occur?” Think about it. Too many negatives make a positive. Secondly, the Agency of Education is relying upon their own study which they readily admit, read the report, is flawed in the collection of data and neither valid nor reliable. So according to this information, we’re going to spend lots of public money on secular preschools based on a junk study.

  • rosemarie jackowski

    It seems to me that Pre-K is anti-family, anti-parents, and anti-taxpayers.

    Assuming that there is ‘someone’ who can better nurture and care for children than the family really makes me wonder where we are headed.

  • Glenn Thompson

    Rosemarie Jackowski,

    “It seems to me that Pre-K is anti-family, anti-parents, and anti-taxpayers.”

    That is one way of looking at it! Back in my day, we didn’t even have Kindergarten as an option. I gotta wonder if I would have been been a lot smarter and better off if someone other than my parents raised me in my younger years given the direction Montpelier is heading with this?

    One thing that is crystal clear, Montpelier hasn’t a care in the world how much all this government intrusion adds to government spending and how much taxes will need to be raised to pay for it!

  • Ethan Rogers

    “More than half of Vermont children are not ready for school when they enter kindergarten”
    What the heck does this mean? Can they not use crayons properly? Do they insist on talking during ‘nap-time’? Do they release abnormal saline secretions from their tear ducts because they miss their mommy?

    Can we please just call this what it truly is – taxpayer subsidized daycare. Five years from now we’ll discover our three-year olds aren’t taking their indoctrination seriously enough, and we’ll need Pre-pre-K beginning when they’re one year old.

  • Larry Hopkins

    No doubt Pre-K is good and should be accessible to all…..but, from what I have seen, and extended to the legislators on our behalf, was the scenario which was overlooked and that is where a school district has more open seats than students to attend.
    We are small and have a Pre-K license for 15 students and its in the public school and 1/2 day for 5 days a week for 15 hours.
    Also in town is a Private Pre-K that I believe is hourly? The apparent “Choice” is my concern as we budget $30K a year and need 7-8 students to be solvent. There is a great fluctuation in eligibility count in town often between 6-12 students , so its financially important for the public school to fill up as best as possible. It has its annual ups and downs. If the public school only had 2 and 10 went private, the public school loses money and taxes increase. The reimbursement / student contracted out would be money directly lost to the private contractor when seats are open and those children only receive 67% of class time as this plan is 10 hours and we already allow 15. These hypotheticals could create choice, lower classtime and keep money from the public coffers, raise taxes and ultimately force the considerations to closedown and fully contract out for the service and hope all get the services expected.
    If a parent did not like our 3rd grade offerings and pulled their student out for another school, they pay fully out of pocket. Why is Pre-K looked at so differently.
    This could kill our program. ( as history, we took over the program because the parents could not afford the per diem rates charged )….so how will they pay for hours 11-15 to get the same exposure?

  • Phil Taylor

    When Good Intentions Go Bad

    Repeatedly I had asked the sponsors of this bill to create language that would allow for school’s that decided to devote all their Pre-k resources to a full day/week 4 yo program would not be forced to take on 3 yo’s.

    Our principal and Pre-k instructors made a calculated and strategic decision to devote all the schools pre-k resources to a full day 4 yo program, abandoning a part day 3 yo program and part day 4yo program. Why? Because they felt they could not effectively prepare both with only 10 hours a week. So they chose to focus all efforts on 4 yo to best prepare them and intervene with at risk students.

    The board supported this because this was a strategic attempt to reduce special ed cases early, and thoroughly. And it work, we started to see those numbers go down.

    Now the state passes a law with good intent (I support universal Pre-k) and forces schools to incur higher special ed costs because they know what is best for our school.

    What is worse–1/2 day programs are a nightmare for working parents, they have to come back 2 hours later and then drop the kids off at another day care service. Even worse–what at risk kids need most is routine–regular days–normalized schedules.

    But even better yet, you know the survey that the AOE used to make this decision–their idea of research-it was a very cursory observation of the child. I asked one kindergarten teacher about this survey she said, ” I tried my best to make observations of the children and record it in the survey, but there was just no way I could make a formative assessment in such a short period of time so early in the school year.” She felt that there was no way the survey could be accurate.

    The State Legislature wants to reduce board involvement in their schools, when it is the school board members who are running defense to protect the decisions of the principals and staff who actually know what is best for our kids. The problem isn’t the school board members, its the legislators who interfere with the the decisions of the principals who rightfully should be leading the direction of the school.

    Phil Taylor
    Twin Valley Schools

  • David Dempsey

    Why doesn’t the legislature spend money to fix the roads and let the responible parents teach their kids and work on getting lazy parents to spend some time with their kids.

    • Matt Taylor

      The legislature has invisible money(we have yet to earn it) that they want to spend spend spend.

      If it sounds like a “good” idea that is enough for them to jump first and figure out how to pay for it later.

      I do believe they did have good intentions however, you know what they say about good intentions.

      So much for trying to get education costs under control.

  • Paul Lutz

    Let me see property taxes are to high, voters vote no on school budgets and the state…..

    raises property taxes, then adds additional requiremets for 3rd and 4th graders.

    Ohh That makes sense.

    I wonder how many people on lifetime assistance (welfare) will now be able to sit home alone because the state is forcing you and I to pay for childcare?

  • Christina Clough

    I’m compelled to comment because one important perspective isn’t represented here. I’m a stay at home mom with a bright, energetic and very social 3 year old who wants nothing more than to attend school like her big sister. We go to play groups (I run two), attend story time and have play dates, but quite honestly she craves the company of other little kids. I know of at least 4 of her little friends whose mothers have voiced the desire to have their kids attend a structured program with other children. We’re not trying to get free childcare. Many of these 3 year olds have infant siblings. Can you all conceive that perhaps a mother’s attention might be spread thin with an infant to care for? What’s more, if my child were at preschool for a few hours a day, I could work. Or the stay at home moms with infants might be able to get some housework done (finally!). I visited an open house for a program in a nearby town and was delighted by the social and practical skills the children were learning in a safe, caring environment. With collaborative funding, the tuition for 3 half days of school would be $60 a month. Hooray!! But wait – then I learned that our town didn’t participate in collaborative funding. The tuition was $362 a month. We can’t afford it. Finally, the point should be made that if for whatever reason you are against preschool, don’t send your kid. It’s not mandatory. But our town has quite a few young kids spending very long days in day care or in front of a tv when they might be playing and learning with other children.

  • Larry Hopkins

    Christina, I kinda like your approach to some extent, but if you read my post above, we set up a free 15 hour a week program that could now be in jeopardy because this legislation calls for 10 hours paid by the state. The people should be using the publicly funded programs before taking that money and paying a subcontractor which reduces overall revenues and increases taxes. Lets do something in towns where supply is more than demand instead of just worrying about where demand exceeds supply.

    • Christina Clough

      Please look into Act 62 collaborative funding which has already been in place in many communities in the state. As I understand it, this new law is for the most part just mandating it. I may be wrong here, but I also believe that if your school already offers a program, you’re fine. Our school offers a solid program for 4 year olds, but not 3 yr. olds. Children with birthdays that fall past September 1st have to wait another full year to attend. I’m not involved in the budgeting for our schools. I know it’s hard, but enough communities are pulling it off right now that I feel we can look to them and learn how they’ve made it work.

  • Larry Hopkins

    We do offer it and this , as I understand it, allows students to be ‘pushed away” via choice and creates an unneeded public expense to subcontract providers when we have open seats. If the public program can not accommodate all children as far as seating capacity, then I support contracting out, but only in that case. Does not make sense to operate a program, incur public cost of that program, and have all students opt to go elsewhere and the public school system becomes a useless funnel to handle money at a loss and increased taxation.

  • nick spencer

    27 million unfunded added to the mess that Shumlin created through Act 60. Great job.