With tax money at stake, who grades Vermont pre-K programs?

Braeden Schuren Burns (left) and Sophia Ridge (right) play at Turtle Island Children’s Center in Montpelier, before a news conference announcing the 28th annual Trouble in Toyland report by Vermont Public Interest Group. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger.
Youngsters play at a children’s center. File photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger

As Vermont prepares to begin paying for pre-kindergarten for all youngsters this fall, the quality of those programs is considered key to realizing the hoped-for return on that investment.

Research has shown that good pre-K programs can help close the achievement gap and lower the number of children identified as needing special education later in their schooling.

“Pre-K can be a great equalizer, but only if it is high-quality,” said Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. That means having well-educated teachers trained in early education, who use a rigorous curriculum in a small class where they can have one-on-one interactions with each child, according to Barnett.

Yet some in the field are considering what’s the right yardstick for evaluating early education programs, especially private ones.

Ensuring universal access isn’t easy, especially in a rural state like Vermont. That is why lawmakers have created a blended system that allows both public schools and private centers to offer pre-K to the state’s 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds not enrolled in kindergarten.

The hybrid system straddles a fine line for viability because it costs a lot in time and money to invest in a high-quality pre-K program. If policymakers require too much of providers, they could run them out of business at a time when options need to expand. But getting the most benefit for children means ensuring public dollars are well spent.

Different standards in use

This past year was a trial run in areas of the state that were ready to move forward with the universal pre-kindergarten law — Act 166 — and its voucher system. This year all eligible children will be given a $3,092 voucher to attend any prequalified program for 10 hours a week for 35 weeks.

Currently 342 programs across the state have prequalified. Fifty-nine percent, or 202, are privately operated. The 140 others are operated by public schools.

Vermont is relying on its rating program known as Vermont Step Ahead Recognition System, or STARS, to delineate quality and approve programs to accept public dollars.

STARS was originally built to recognize day care programs that go above and beyond licensing requirements. Centers that choose to participate — it’s required for those that want to offer publicly funded pre-K — are rated from one to five stars. The standards were developed by the Agency of Education and the Department for Children and Families. The Legislature approved them in 2009.

When passing Act 166, lawmakers decided to use four- and five-star ratings to determine that a pre-K program is qualified. Act 166 also allows for programs that have three stars to get approval as long as they have an appropriate plan to get to four stars within two years.

“Act 166 really provided motivation for any center that was currently educating 3- and 5-year-olds to get a rating,” said Alexandra Dusablon, who heads the three-star program at The Edge gym in Essex.

According to the Education Agency, of the prequalified programs:

  • Forty-two percent have five stars — 80 public programs and 64 private.
  • Thirty-six percent have four stars — 76 private and 47 public.
  • Ten percent have three stars — 21 private and 12 public.
  • Twelve percent have accreditation from the National Association for the Education of Young Children — 41 private and one public. The organization has been providing accreditation for more than 30 years and is considered the gold standard. Any Vermont program that has accreditation automatically gets a five-star rating from the state.

There are a total of 55 NAEYC-approved programs sparsely spread across Vermont, according to the association. Not all of them serve pre-K under Act 166.

State Board of Education member Bill Mathis said it is an open question whether good quality pre-K options are available to all Vermont children, particularly the neediest, who are expected to benefit the most. Mathis said he is interested in comparing the rigor and quality of Vermont’s STARS ratings to the national association’s evaluations.

The Milton Family Community Center has had the national accreditation since 2002. The center has three full-time teachers on staff, and the curriculum is tailored to each child’s ability and interest. Jennifer Hayes, the center’s child care director, said that while STARS is rigorous enough for Vermont, she sees a big difference between a five-star program and a nationally accredited one. “I don’t think they are the same because of the amount of work and effort and tiny details NAEYC looks at. STARS is a lot more generalized,” she said.

Timson Hill Preschool in Williamsville, in Windham County, has also had the group’s accreditation since the start of the century. Programs have to go through a renewal every five years. Kathie Gatto-Gurney heads the pre-K program and said she likes the NAEYC process. “It gives us a chance to review the whole program thoroughly every five years. That is the part I like about it — it challenges me.”

Gatto-Gurney also participated in STARS before becoming nationally accredited but said she isn’t sure how she feels about either program. “I don’t know how important it is. STARS is very different. Others find it rigorous and challenging,” she said. She added that if a center doesn’t have STARS or national accreditation, it doesn’t mean the program isn’t good, or even great.

At the pre-K program at The Edge called Kids & Fitness, three people in the Essex building hold teacher licenses, according to Dusablon. She has a degree in elementary education with an endorsement in early childhood education and psychology.

She advocated for the STARS program. “I think the star application process is quite comprehensive,” she said. “Maintaining those standards requires an active, conscious effort, and it requires continual reflection and improvement.”

Reaching for the STARS

The STARS rating system is based on a paper application process. The framework is a graduated point system with five arenas: regulatory history; staff qualifications; families and community; program practices; and program administration.

Centers offer evidence detailing how they have met the standards. The criteria include having been inspected by a DCF licensee within the last two years; maintaining written policies and procedures; communicating with families and the broader community; having a developmentally appropriate curriculum and activities; and following proper business practices.

For details on how each point can be achieved in each of the sections click here.

A one-star program is just starting out and may be really strong in one of the five arenas. “They put their foot on the path to make a commitment to quality,” said Reeva Murphy, deputy commissioner at DCF’s child development division.

Reeva Murphy
Reeva Murphy of the Agency of Human Services speaks during a House Education Committee meeting about the implementation of the state’s universal pre-kindergarten law. File photo by Amy Ash Nixon/VTDigger

The three-star programs have shown substantial progress in two or three areas. “This is really the gateway to quality. They are working along and doing really great,” Murphy said.

A four-star program has documented that it is solid in every arena, and five-star programs are equivalent to those with national accreditation, according to Murphy. “It is a big move to go from three to four stars,” she said.

But some practitioners and experts question whether five stars truly equates to national accreditation.

“It is absolutely not as rigorous” as the National Association for the Education of Young Children, said Hayes, from the Milton Family Community Center.

Going for gold

The national association has 10 areas of research-based criteria and standards that providers need to show they meet to receive accreditation.

“Within each of the 10 early child program standards, we assess against specific criteria,” said Kristen Johnson, senior director of its Academy for Early Childhood Program Accreditation. “The standards are 30 years old, and they were developed using all the best research and expertise available.”

The standards address relationships, curriculum, instructional approaches, assessment of children, health, teachers, family communication, community relationships, physical environment, and leadership and management.

Specifically, programs are required to use teaching approaches that are developmentally, linguistically and culturally appropriate and effective at addressing each child’s learning needs, styles and interests.

They also must have a well-planned, written curriculum that consistently promotes developmentally appropriate learning in social, emotional, physical, language and cognitive sectors. “It takes more than buying a curriculum and implementing it,” Johnson said. “We want to see they are implementing it with fidelity, that teachers are responsive to children’s interests and that they are engaging the children in appropriate ways.”

Programs must have staff with educational qualifications and specific knowledge about early learning. They also need to support their staff with ongoing professional development programs and make sure employees are trained in the curriculum and work as a team.

Applicants for accreditation are expected to connect with outside entities such as museums, parks, libraries and zoos and bring in local performers and artists.

Programs have to be administered by someone with a bachelor’s degree and additional education in the early childhood field and administration, leadership and management. And for pre-K the ratio should be 20 children to two staff members.

Accreditation can take up to several years, Johnson said. It begins with self-study to see what can be improved, then continues with a detailed application and the compiling of evidence demonstrating how they are achieving each of the standards.

The association then sends assessors to observe the program in action. The assessor also reviews all the evidence collected during the self-examination process.

If the program gets a grade of 80 percent or above in each domain, accreditation is awarded for five years.

Star makers

Vermont contracts with a nonprofit organization that hired two people to handle most of the daily work with STARS, according to DCF’s Jan Walker, who is sometimes called the quality person because she is responsible for workforce development and quality at the child development division. Two STARS coordinators review all applications and supporting documents and decide how many stars to award a program. The credential is good for three years.

The first step in the process is for an early education program to be visited by a licensing specialist.

The STARS coordinator checks on the regulatory history of the program and notifies DCF if the program hasn’t had a licensing visit in the last two years, said Walker.

The only other time in the STARS process that a trained person might go to a program to observe and assess it — other than for licensing — is if the center is trying to earn three or four points in the program practices area of the evaluation, according to Walker. But programs have to agree to unannounced as well as announced visits by DCF or the Education Agency, according to the Act 166 rules.

Some in the field say requiring on-site evaluations would bring more rigor to the STARS program.

Teachers are key

Experts in early education say that the most important elements to consider in a pre-K program are the background and qualifications of the teacher and the curriculum used.

“You need a strong curriculum, but teachers have to be supported by some kind of continual improvement system in order to deliver it well,” said Barnett, of the National Institute for Early Education Research.

Four- or five-star programs will prequalify for Act 166 if they have two stars in each of the arenas and have a licensed teacher specializing in early education on staff and present during the 10 hours that publicly financed pre-K is provided. Family home centers are able to contract with a licensed teacher who monitors them, according to Murphy at DCF’s child development division.

Public schools have to play by a slightly different rulebook: Every classroom has to have a teacher with a valid license and specialty in early education or early childhood special education.

Practitioners do not always agree that a degree equates to quality. “The people who work in the home centers don’t feel they need (a degree). They feel that if you are nurturing, you are nurturing, and some people with a master’s degree are not as good as someone who is naturally nurturing,” said Gatto-Gurney.

As for herself, Gatto-Gurney said having a background in teaching helps. She said that if you are educated in how children develop and learn, then designing teaching strategies to use play to explore and learn the different aspects of the state’s learning standards comes easily.

Barnett takes issue with Vermont’s rules that allow for private and home based pre-K programs to have only one licensed teacher on site or in a mentoring capacity. “How would you feel if you went to a hospital and they said, ‘We don’t have a doctor to deliver your care, but we have one available should something go wrong’?”

He said that in most states with hybrid public-private pre-K systems, the standards for private programs are lower than those for public schools.

But if it isn’t acceptable to have an unlicensed person teaching kindergarten, then it shouldn’t be acceptable for 4-year-olds, in his view. “They aren’t easier to teach than 5-year-olds,” he said.

The reason there are different standards for private and public school pre-K programs is that lawmakers didn’t change the qualifying standards from earlier legislation to Act 166, according to Murphy, who added that the older standards are being reviewed and are subject to change.

“We want to look at our results before making decisions about where to make changes in quality,” Murphy said.

Dusablon, of The Edge, said it’s hard to attract licensed teachers to private centers because they won’t earn as much as a kindergarten or first-grade teacher. “That is the challenge for lawmakers and everyone as a whole,” she said. “How do we move to a place where proper compensation for professionals in this field doesn’t fall on the backs of the parents paying the tuition for child care?”

The National Association for the Education of Young Children expects teachers to have at least an associate degree or equivalent. It also wants at least 75 percent of the teachers to have a minimum of a baccalaureate degree in early childhood education, child development, elementary education or early childhood special education.

“We know from years of research that early childhood educators with more professional preparation provide more developmentally appropriate, nurturing and responsive care and education experiences for young children,” said Johnson. She added that other aspects of high-quality teacher preparation include experience and mentoring.

In this sense, Vermont’s public school pre-K programs exceed the association’s teacher expectations, but that isn’t the case for private providers.

Assessing the students too

All pre-K programs have to demonstrate that their curriculum is aligned with the state’s early learning standards, and they have to use a state assessment for each student to show if they are learning what they should be at the right developmental stage. In the early years, such assessments are not paper and pencil tests but observations noted by the teachers.

The assessment can be a hardship for some providers, according to Dusablon. She said her center has to maintain a yearly subscription to a specific online assessment called Teaching Strategies Gold for each child. “It is a financial burden that could become challenging for some providers,” she said.

Murphy simply said that it is necessary to know that students are learning what they are supposed to in pre-K. “We want to know they have a curriculum that is intentional, thoughtful and aligned with the early learning standards. That is what STARS promotes,” said Murphy.

And although the general public may not know the details of the STARS evaluation, the system creates a common language that parents can understand, said Dusablon. “We have rating systems for other services like hotels and restaurants. People can understand that more stars must equal a better program, but I don’t think the general public understands everything that goes into it. But on the face value, everyone can understand that five may be better than three.”

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Tiffany Danitz Pache

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  • James Rude

    Too many studies with differing conclusions about reliable benefits of these programs. So, to answer the headline question: WITH TAX MONEY AT STAKE, WHO GRADES VERMONT PRE-K PROGRAMS? Follow the money… it is the people who gain the most and who operate and/or gain advantage from such programs.

  • Rob Roper

    For over a decade the Vermont NEA has been orchestrating a hostile takeover — using tens of millions of taxpayer dollars — of the childcare market currently served by hundreds of small, independent childcare providers, mostly run by women.

    The notion that only “high quality” childcare is delivered through the public school system, or directly regulated by it is a fallacy. If these programs are really so “high quality,” how come since these “high quality” high cost programs have been expanding in Vermont, the fourth graders who have matriculated through a system having increasing availably of this “high quality” taxpayer subsidized pre-k have seen their test scores DROP — every year, year after year?

    The question Vermonters have to ask is if you want to see your property taxes explode to subsidize the government takeover of a sector of the economy currently being served by hundreds of small businesses, who have a hard enough time making ends meet as it is.

    VT Digger seems to be on board with the takeover. In addition to this article today, Digger has provided a steady drumbeat of one-sided reporting on the issue…

    May 18. Child Care Supply Is Far Below Demand, New Analysis Finds

    April 25. Education Board Asked to Offer Fix for Concerns About Pre-K Law

    April 24. Early Education Survey Highlights Public Private Differences

    April 12. Pre-K Supporters Look for State Help When Federal Money Ends

    September 13. Parents Struggle to Find Affordable Quality Child Care

    In all of these articles — total — there is only one person cited who (mildly) questions the premise that we need to charge forward with more, taxpayer funded, public school operated pre-k. Certainly nobody who is outright opposed. There is only one question raised about the cost of expanding taxpayer subsidized pre-k, and that question gets a non-answer — JFO hasn’t scored it yet. And, not a single interview of an independent childcare provider who has been or will likely be put out of business by this program gets a chance to make her voice heard about why she is perfectly capable of providing a high quality service without meddling from Montpelier.

    Gunga Din didn’t carry this much water!

    If the press won’t ask legislators these questions, citizens will have to. Do we really want to increase property taxes by somewhere in the $50 million – $100 million range so that our already overpriced public school system (see the latest Picus report) can take control of our three and four year olds? Candidates for state office just filed their petitions. Time to put this question to them.

    • David White

      Those are all great points. A true example of biased coverage. Maybe we should all just hand overr our children at birth, so Montpelier can raise them for you.

    • Paul Richards

      The nea is a well-oiled political machine able to infest nearly every aspect of our lives in an all-out effort to hold and expand their place as the largest monopoly responsible for shaping thought processes. They plant the seeds of liberalism that poison millions and millions of otherwise bright minds. The evidence is screaming in many pockets and as a whole across this withering nation. All of this while their elaborate pay and benefits packages get rubber stamped in an ever growing scheme that essentially renders us with no representation for our taxation. Eliminate public sector unions and start to gain some control over the largest fleecing of our tax dollars.

  • Paul Richards

    Expanding the ever growing failed public education system. As if this is going to help.

  • Susanna Rodani

    Ten hours a week for thirty five weeks?
    It would be a better investment to pay people to not have children.
    I know this sounds insensitive, but the plan to give $3,000 per child in voucher form is a sham and will only make a bad system worse.

    • Jay Eshelman

      Not necessarily, Susanna!

      In fact, allowing parents to have a publically funded voucher will, more likely than not, be less expensive to taxpayers than paying for Pre-K in the restricted governance of a State monopoly school system, as is now the case in most K-12 State schools.

      Again, here’s an anecdotal case in point. The Westminster school district is paying $23,400 per student to educate its K-6 students. At the same time, the district is paying about $16,000 per student to educate its tuitioned school choice 7th & 8th graders. These are the same students. That’s 46% more to educate the elementary school children in the monopoly school when compared to the tuitioned school choice 7th & 8th grade governance.

      If Pre-K remains a State mandate, and the correlation holds for Pre-K costs, the current $3,092 voucher could increase to more than $4,500 cost per student in a non-choice Pre-K monopoly school.

      In the final analysis, if school choice Pre-K students entering kindergarten are determined to be well prepared (compared to current statistics), it will further the case to allow parents to choose their K-12 providers as well, using a voucher system that, in most cases, is significantly less expensive for taxpayers than current State monopoly school costs per student.

      Please don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Let Pre-K school choice play out.

    • Lee Stirling

      10 hours per week for 35 weeks and a voucher for $3,092. Who is this really going to help? Whose job calls for them to work 10 hours per week? Who can realistically utilize this state-provided Pre-K for their kids without picking-up the difference for the remaining 30 hours per week (or more) out of pocket? If childcare is unaffordable or unavailable for many kids as it is now, how will the state-supplied voucher make any difference?

      Child care centers, especially private ones, will not jump through all the hoops and take on all the added expense to achieve a 4 or 5 star rating and only allow you to send your child for 10 hours per week without paying for the entire 40 hours? Those kids are still taking-up a slot that someone else would or could gladly pay full-price for. How does that make good business sense?

      So if the Act 166 Pre-K program only applied to children ages 3-5 not enrolled in kindergarten, does anyone know what the impacts will be on childcare programs and access to them for younger children ages infant-2 years? With the added regulation and expense of paying licensed teachers and meeting all the requirements of Act 166/STARS to serve these 3-5 year olds, will space and availability for children ages 2 and younger be sacrificed as a result?

      • Jon Corrigan

        There’s nothing that requires a parent to have a job – that would be something that ends with ‘ist’, although I’m not quite sure what.

  • Just what the taxpayers need! Another level of bureaucrats to rate the subsidized babysitting! If the kids come home with empty diapers and no broken bones, I’d give them 5 stars.

    • Ellen Luna

      William, I suggest you look into the research on brain development in the first 5 years of life: 90% of a person’s brain architecture is built during those years, and experiences in the first five years have a huge impact on a person’s ability to learn, to self-regulate, and to form healthy relationships. Child care programs that focus only on safety are not quality programs, and could hamper children’s development and education for the rest of their lives.

  • Jay Eshelman

    “This past year was a trial run in areas of the state that were ready to move forward with the universal pre-kindergarten law — Act 166 — and its voucher system. This year all eligible children will be given a $3,092 voucher to attend any prequalified program for 10 hours a week for 35 weeks.”

    Why, the parents do, of course.

    I can only hope that education special interest groups don’t throw the proverbial agency/institution-serving, ‘Fly in the Ointment’. After all, Vermont’s ‘policymakers’ and so-called ‘well-educated teachers’ don’t have the greatest track record to date. Let’s play this out. Let parents choose their Pre-K providers.

  • John McClaughry

    Tiffany blithely tells us that “Research has shown that good pre-K programs can help close the achievement gap and lower the number of children identified as needing special education later in their schooling.” There is no research that shows that about UNIVERSAL pre-K. The vaunted “research” comes from three decades-old experiments (Perry, Abecedarian, and Chicago) that focused enormous resources on desperately disadvantaged pre-K children, and even then the outcomes years later (in the case of Perry, 1965) consisted of fewer of the preschool kids in jail, etc.
    UNIVERSAL pre-K takes what money is available and spreads it over 100% of the children – not the most challenged 10%. How does this “close the achievement gap”? Of course, it doesn’t, as Amy Wilkins, the leader of the Florida universal preschool initiative, sorrowfully admitted after winning the political battle.
    As I wrote 11 years ago, “For those – notably liberals – concerned about closing the achievement gap between at-risk kids and all other kids, universal preschool won’t do it. It will just eat up the funding that might do it. It will however, produce many new highly paid jobs – for the teachers and administrators who will preside over a 17% expansion of Vermont’s government education empire.”
    The bulk of Tiffany’s article describes the monumental – almost ludicrous – input-mandating and measuring superstructure being erected to assure “quality” universal preschooling. Years ago education reformers came out for output accountability rather than imposing a long list of input requirements (square feet of library space, progress toward advanced degrees, etc.). Now the education industry has stumbled back to the old input-mandate agenda.
    Why not look at outcomes? Because the education Blob knows, from the Headstart and other evaluations, that four years after U pre-K, in the third grade, you can’t tell the U pre-K kids from the ones who stayed home or went to good old day care. Outcomes? Never mind!
    Forgive me for pointing this out again, but in 2010 I wrote “There are idealistic Vermonters who really believe that universal preschool will produce these amazing returns, for the kids, for society, and for taxpayers. From a more hard nosed perspective, it seems clear that the primary motivating force behind the universal pre-K movement is the enthusiasm of the public education industry to get its hands on another two year’s supply of our children, and send yet another large bill to taxpayers.”
    In that, they have largely succeeded, and we’ll be paying them for a long time.

  • Paul Richards

    “All pre-K programs have to demonstrate that their curriculum is aligned with the state’s early learning standards,…”
    Based on the results I’m not convinced this is a good thing.

    “The assessment can be a hardship for some providers, according to Dusablon. She said her center has to maintain a yearly subscription to a specific online assessment called Teaching Strategies Gold for each child. “It is a financial burden that could become challenging for some providers,” she said.”
    That’s the point of it all. Give the unions all of the information they need and make it just as hard and expensive as they can for the open shop providers. They are just trying to put as many as they can out of business so they can expand their monopoly and hold us all hostage.

  • Trevor Olson

    As a parent of a child in Pre-K, I’ve seen how it’s benefited my child socially and academically. However, I often resent the amount of time my child is away from me and seemingly being co-parented by his teachers, and in the end, the state. I lay the blame for this change on the economic inability of most families to live on the income of one parent and the choice of far too many to abdicate their parental responsibilities to the government or private daycare providers.

    • Paul Richards

      The “state” wants complete cradle to grave control over us all. It is part of their subversion tactics to set us all up for the new world order that obama and others have told us they want. People of little or no means of their own are incentivized to have children to overwhelm the system and make more and more dependent on the government. These people typically have no one but the government to turn to for help. Many have no family structure or other choices for help as a result of the demoralization of our nation through pop culture and other means perpetrated by the government. It’s the long road to the dissolution of this once great nation.
      Communism is gaining a foothold and on its way to destroying the greatest nation mankind has ever known as we sit idly by and watch it circle the drain. We should feel lucky we have seen the best of America but unfortunately it will not be the same for our children. Thank a liberal.

    • Ellen Luna

      I’m curious who’s fault you think it is that families can no longer get by on one income, and what you think could be done about it.

  • Jennifer Roberts

    The Teacher:Student ratio is one of the highest in the nation ….right? And one of the highest per pupil tuition too…right? There should be more then enough money there….right?

  • christine moon

    I believe that Universal PreK should be implemented as part of the public school system. It should then follow the same rules as a public school system, and any state or federal laws, policies, and regulations. It is time to take the private business or home based business out of early childcare/education. Much research has proven that the first five years of brain development is crucial for a child to have the best start in life. All children should have equal access to the highest quality of education and development by educated/licensed teachers, regardless of the socioeconomic status he or she was born into. The record shows that Vermont’s public school pre-K programs exceed the National Association for the Education of Young Children versus the private providers. The STARS program is also another way to monitor and set standards to promote high quality PreK. Because it is difficult for a small state like Vermont, and many other states, to afford full Universal PreK to all children. Therefore, it is our responsibility as a nation, to turn to the Federal Government, and change the current dysfunctional-corrupt tax system, and tax the powerful and wealthy cooperate business (who pay zero taxes). These taxes will pay for Universal PreK. If you look to France, their culture puts their children first and their culture first. This is not only beneficial for all their children and society, it promotes women to have the same right as a man to pursue a career. Women in our country continue to be discriminated and carry a larger burden when trying to pay the high cost of preschooll/daycare and maintain a job. Women should not have to choose between giving up a job that puts food on her table versus paying the ever increasing high cost of private daycare/prek., not to mention the worry a woman suffers because her child maybe in a unsafe home or private daycare business. I haver personally experienced what my granddaughter went through in Essex Junction. The first private daycare was a nightmare. This particular business woman should be shut down. I saw a daily turnover of young, untrained, unlicensed women. I doubt there was ever a educational curriculum, and the children never went on field trips. The final straw was the day she came home with a very red bottom. Now she is in a much better place with licensed teachers, an educational curriculum, field trips, functions that involve parents, and parent-teacher conferences. There is a definite difference….it isn’t acceptable to have a unlicensed person teaching elementary students, then it should not be acceptable for children 1-5 years old!