The bill, H.517, would make a variety of changes to the funding and oversight of Vermont’s universal pre-kindergarten program, which gives parents vouchers of around $3,000 to pay for 10 hours a week of public or private pre-K for 35 weeks a year.
Perhaps the biggest change would be converting the vouchers from a flat amount to a sliding scale based on family income.
The bill would also boost the overall voucher funding by reallocating lottery proceeds that currently go into the education fund. During the current fiscal year, the lottery put $24 million into the fund, while the universal pre-K program was paid for with $14 million from the fund. H.517 would redirect all the lottery proceeds to the pre-K vouchers rather than using the balance to support other education fund expenses.
Before voting, the House Education Committee was still seeking information on the tax implications of that change. Chair David Sharpe, D-Bristol, said he was not able to get solid numbers from the Education Agency or elsewhere, but there could be up to a penny increase in tax rates because of the shift in money out of the education fund.
The committee approved H.517 in a vote of 8 to 3, but the endorsement came after a deadline for most legislation to emerge from committee if it is to advance this year.
H.517 would also change the roles of the agencies administering universal pre-K.
The Child Development Division of the Agency of Human Services jointly administers the program with the Agency of Education.
H.517 would address what some say has been an issue: a lack of clear lines of responsibility. The current bill would put AOE in charge of pre-K programs in public schools and the Child Development Division at AHS in control of care centers and other private providers.
Top administration officials have opposed this provision and asked for more time to put together solutions to problems that arose while implementing universal pre-K.
“In 10 weeks you aren’t going to take on something as big as this and think through all the ways you are going to impact the system,” Human Services Secretary Al Gobeille told the House Education Committee.Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe and Gobeille told committee members that Act 166, the universal pre-K law, has “serious challenges and flaws” that make it difficult to administer since it went into effect last summer. The two agencies have struggled to find a way to work through the complexities over the last two years, according to Holcombe.
“We took two robust systems, two sets of federal regulations, two sets of state rules, and we mushed them together without thinking of where they overlap and where they conflict,” she said of Act 166.
Besides dividing up the work, the bill the committee approved would have AHS create a sliding scale that would help low-income families pay for more hours of child care and pre-K. During the current school year, $13 million is being paid to private pre-K programs, and $1 million to public programs. The bill would increase total tuition money going to private providers by transferring the lottery revenues to the general fund for AHS to distribute.
More than 70 percent of children under the age of 6 have both parents in the workforce. A subsidy program separate from the pre-K vouchers, the Child Care Financial Assistance Program under AHS, currently helps 23 percent of families pay for child care.
The Blue Ribbon Commission on Financing High Quality, Affordable Child Care suggested in December that the state begin paying the full cost of 40 hours a week of care — what it calls 100 percent benefit — for families earning up to $60,000. The commission envisioned tapering off that support for families earning up to $180,000.
H.517 would give 100 percent benefit to families with a gross income up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level, or $48,500 for a family of four. The upper limit would be for household incomes of around $228,000, or four times the Vermont median.
The bill would achieve a goal Gov. Phil Scott set out in his budget proposal earlier this year: expanding early childhood education programs for low-income families. He called for using $9.6 million that he said could be saved through having school districts level-fund their budgets for fiscal 2018, but lawmakers rejected that plan.
In seeking to smooth the implementation of Act 166, the current bill addresses issues that administrators attribute to an entangling of responsibilities along with federal and state requirements. A debacle involving required fingerprinting of educators delayed the start of pre-K at some sites last fall because it wasn’t clear who was responsible for carrying it out.
Holcombe and Gobeille told lawmakers they need a fix to the fingerprinting problem.
New regulations that went into effect in August require all child care employees — not just those at programs accepting vouchers — to be fingerprinted, in addition to undergoing a background check. Superintendents are responsible for making sure all school employees who come in contact with children have fingerprint-supported background checks.
Under Act 166, the Child Development Division took over all background checks and fingerprinting for employees at public and private settings. The conflicting roles and responsibilities began creating problems. Then over the summer, CDD was putting in place a new vetting system. At the same time, there was a lot of interest from providers wanting to be approved to accept Act 166 vouchers, and it created a backlog.
H.517 would have resolved this by separating responsibility for public and private preschool programs between AOE and CDD. But since this bill isn’t likely to go far this session, the Senate is now considering language to fix the fingerprinting issue.
Advocates for early childhood programs do not want the agencies’ roles changed, according to Robyn Maguire, campaign director at Let’s Grow Kids. “We are very concerned by the committee’s proposal to bifurcate the current program into two separate programs run by two separate agencies. We anticipate it would lead to more challenges, not fewer,” she said, adding that none of the preschool coordinators the organization surveyed supported the change.
The bill would also change the accounting among school districts when a child uses the voucher to attend preschool in another district.
Under Act 166, parents can use the vouchers for a public school program or a private preschool in their home school district or elsewhere. But the money comes out of the school budget where the family lives.
Under H.517, the cost for a youngster who attends a program outside his or her home district would instead be split between that district and the one where the child attends pre-K.
Rep. Adam Greshin, I-Warren, said he wanted to support the bill but couldn’t accept the tax rate increase. “I understand the thrust of what we are trying to do, but it is a penny on the tax. … I don’t see this is the way to do it,” he said, voting against it.
Another no vote was cast by Rep. Alice Miller, D-Shaftsbury, who said the pre-K programs in her area were against the bill. “AHS and AOE need to work this out and come back with a recommendation on how to move the pre-K bill forward, and they agreed to do that,” she said.
Rep. Dylan Giambatista, D-Essex Junction, was the third member who voted against the bill.