Lawmakers on the House Education Committee have advanced legislation that will partially split oversight of the state’s universal pre-kindergarten program.
Vermont gives families vouchers to use at the public or private program of their choice for 10 hours a week of pre-K. The program is currently administered and monitored jointly by the Agency of Education and the Agency of Human Services, an arrangement that has been a regulatory headache for local providers and educators from the start.
Committee members voted unanimously Wednesday in favor of a proposal to give the Agency of Education sole responsibility for public providers. Both agencies will have oversight of private child care programs.
The bill is a compromise position between the public schools, which had advocated for the change, advocates and the agencies, which supported leaving the system alone. It now heads to the House Human Services Committee.
Sarah Kenney, senior policy director for Let’s Grow Kids, an early childhood advocacy group, opposes the bifurcation of public and private oversight. The two agencies are only just rolling out a new monitoring system, she said. And the two state entities have been at work rewriting regulations to cut back on duplication.
“We really want to be letting those processes play out and allowing the agencies to work together to implement those changes before we make any big structural changes,” Kenney said.
The secretaries of Education and Human Services, Dan French and Mike Smith, also recommended leaving oversight as-is. Their position was a reversal from their predecessors, who, in 2017, had said the Agency of Education should take the lead on administering the program.
Jeff Francis, the executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association, told lawmakers he was surprised by the change in position. And he emphasized that public school officials on the ground were widely in agreement the current system was dysfunctional.
“Special educators, early childhood coordinators, principals, superintendents, school board members think that the implementation of the law under the dual agency construct is not working well,” he said.
The legislation would also create a grant program to pay for more regional pre-K coordinators to help school districts and providers work better together. But on many of the larger debates around pre-kindergarten, the bill punts the issue to the next biennium, and instead commissions several reports from the state.
Public school officials, for example, strongly advocate requiring private child cares to hire licensed educators to teach during the hours of publicly funded pre-K. (Private providers must contract with a licensed teacher, but those educators can simply provide some supervision to the center’s staff instead of direct instruction.)
Advocates had warned that such a requirement would shutter private programs across the state. There is an acute shortage of early childhood workers in Vermont, and public schools, which can offer significantly better wages and benefits, out-compete private providers in recruitment. The bill asks for a report on the availability of licensed early childhood educators and asks the agencies to predict the financial impact on providers if the state were to require licensed educators teach in private, publicly funded programs.
The legislation also asks for a report studying what to do about special education in the pre-K setting, since families who use their vouchers to go outside of their public school district lose access to special education services. And it asks the agencies to come up with a long-term vision for the system, and to consider whether 4-year-olds might not be able to be included in public kindergarten programs.
Rep. Kate Webb, D-Shelburne, chair of the House Education Committee, said the bill is not as ambitious as some would like. But the goal for now, she said, is to “stabilize” the system in the short term.
“That’s all we’re trying to do. Just stabilize it for now,” Webb said. “Is this a done deal? Is this a 10-year plan? No. It’s not.”
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