Democrats embrace Scott’s universal after-school program pitch

Elementary school students head back to class after lunch and recess at the Coventry Village School on Thursday, September 5, 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Gov. Phil Scott is pitching a universal after-school program for K-12 students that would be rolled out over the next five years, a plan he said will benefit both students and their working parents. 

The proposal, which Scott outlined in his State of the State address Thursday, stood out in a speech that was light on new policy proposals from the administration. 

Democrats embraced the idea, and say they want to work with the governor to start building a statewide network of after-school programming.

Democrats pointed out that the governor failed to mention in his speech that the network wouldn’t be up and running until at least the 2024-2025 school year. Scott is asking lawmakers this year to establish a task force for determining how the after-school system would be funded and administered. 

Democratic legislators say they are committed to creating the task force, but want to see universal after-school program implemented sooner. 

Sen. Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, the chair of the Senate Education Committee, said he doesn’t see why it couldn’t be operational in half that time, or less, once the task force has been established.   

“At that point, it’s biting the bullet and figuring out how to pay for and execute it,” he said. “But then I don’t see why in two, maximum three years, we couldn’t have it.” 

The chair of the House Education Committee, Rep. Kate Webb, D-Shelburne, agreed that she would be interested in rolling out the program on a faster timeline. 

She said that Democratic lawmakers had been “struggling” with the question of how to expand after school programming for years. 

“There’s need for working families, and there’s the need to keep students engaged in positive and constructive ways,” she said.  

The governor pitched the program as an initiative to help the state’s labor force, by syncing up students' days with the work day. 

“[It] supports working parents by reducing the logistical and financial burden of after-school care,” the governor said in his address.  

Both Baruth and the governor are eyeing revenue from a legal marijuana market as a funding source for the program.

In a memo to lawmakers outlining the program in broad strokes, the Scott administration said funding for the program could include, “all revenue generated from any future regulated cannabis market.”

Baruth also said that he believes money from cannabis sales could be used to finance after-school programming. The bill that would establish a legal cannabis marketplace stalled in the House since last year, but has wide, tri-partisan support.

Scott, however, has stopped short of endorsing regulated sales. The governor has said he won't sign a bill unless it includes a controversial roadside saliva testing requirement for impaired drivers and millions of dollars to fund youth use prevention efforts.

“I think whatever we do with tax and regulate money, we have to have a chunk that goes to substance abuse prevention, especially for kids,” Baruth said. 

“Studies have shown that after-school programs are a really big aid in preventing increased use,” he said. 

Gov. Phil Scott delivers his State of the State address to a joint session of the general assembly at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Thursday, January 9, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Scott’s idea for the universal after-school program stems from a renowned model in Iceland that has helped the nation drastically reduce youth drug and alcohol use. 

Since Iceland implemented the model and started building out its network of after school programming, the percentage of 15- and 16-year-olds who had been drunk in the last month dropped from 42% to 5% between 1998 and 2016. 

The percentage of teens smoking daily went from 23% to 2%, and teen marijuana use dropped from 17 percent to 7 percent during the same time.

Vermont Department of Health Commissioner Mark Levine, who has been a proponent of expanding after-school programming in the state, said that the ultimate goal of the initiative, from a public health standpoint, “is to prevent early substance use and misuse among adolescents in Vermont.”

He said he didn’t have an estimate as to how much it would cost to stand up the network of after-school programming across the state. And programs could look different in different communities, with schools, families, community resources, and others pooling resources to offer a variety of activities that students could participate in at no cost. 

He said he is also hopeful that the universal after-school programming could be rolled out on a faster timeline than the Scott initially offered. 

“I certainly wouldn’t see it going beyond three years,” Levine said. “I think that would be realistic, but I think the governor wanted to be cautious because as you know things often get bogged down in the details and in the financing.”

Some communities in the state have made use of federal grants to establish after-school programming networks, and already offer it universally to students, according to Levine.

He pointed out that the Windham Southwest Supervisory Union has such a program and has seen a drastic reduction in substance use. Alcohol use among students in the district dropped from 53% in 1999 to 24% in 2017, according to data from the health department. 

Not all policymakers were thrilled with the governor’s proposal this week. 

Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, said she had concerns about starting a new education program “without addressing the underlying problem of the education finance system.”

“Adding another program onto that without addressing that education finance system is problematic in my view, so I'm looking forward to hearing exactly what he is proposing,” she said after the governor’s State of the State address. 

Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, a Progressive Democrat who is expected to announce a run for governor this week, criticized how long it would take to establish program under Scott’s timeline. 

“I don't think he mentioned the five years in the speech because that would point out how incremental and small it really was,” Zuckerman said.

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Xander Landen

About Xander

Xander Landen is VTDigger's political reporter. He previously worked at the Keene Sentinel covering crime, courts and local government. Xander got his start in public radio, writing and producing stories for NPR affiliates including WBUR in Boston and WNYC in New York. While at WNYC, he contributed to an award-winning investigation of how police departments shield misconduct records from the public. He is a graduate of Tufts University and his work has also appeared in PBS NewsHour and The Christian Science Monitor.


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