Pre-K bill headed to Douglas' desk
By LOUIS PORTER Vermont Press Bureau and SARAH HINCKLEY Herald Staff | May 25,2007
MONTPELIER — Lawmakers this year reached a deal on the rules around state funding of early childhood education — a controversy that pitted those who want universal coverage against those who worry about increasing the cost to the education fund and the future of private nursery schools.
In the end, they split the difference.
School districts will get state assistance in providing education to half of their 3- and 4-year-olds if they choose to do so. But if they provide those services to more than that number, local taxpayers will have to put up the additional money.
"This is the agreement that was drawn between some people who felt we shouldn't be supporting it at all and some people who felt we shouldn't be limiting it at all," said Rep. Carol Hosford, D-Waitsfield. "The intent is to strengthen the child care system of all kinds throughout the state."
One worry was that if state-supported early education was expanded in Vermont it would drive private nursery schools out of business. So the bill stipulates that new programs begun by school districts operate in collaboration with private providers where possible. That means a school district will use state money to send its teachers into a private school for 10 hours of instruction a week.
That's what his district already is doing, and it works very well, said William Mathis, superintendent of the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union.
But Mathis is no fan of the pre-kindergarten bill, H.534, which Gov. James Douglas is expected to sign into law when it reaches his desk.
"They took a really simple law and really made it into a monster," he said. Additional reporting and qualification standards in the measure make the formerly clear process through which districts offer early childhood education unwieldy, Mathis said.
"They have just lathered on a new layer of bureaucracy," he said. "This is what happens when people fix things that are not broken."
But supporters of the idea said it will help the state plan for how much pre-kindergarten education will cost.
That is because of limiting it to half of eligible students. And it forged a compromise setting up a stable system of early childhood education that establishes standards for such programs, they said.
"I think if anything, it is going to control those costs by capping enrollment," said Rep. Janet Ancel, D-Calais.
"I think it is a good bill, I think it is a good compromise," Education Commissioner Richard Cate said. "We have been paying for pre-K without any limit since 1987."
It's tough to estimate the cost of expanded pre-kindergarten education. It is unlikely every district will establish such a program, and in some places less than half of eligible children will be enrolled.
The best estimate puts the new costs under the expanded program at about $14 million, however.
That worries Rep. Rick Hube, R-Londonderry.
"My constituents are getting buried with ever-escalating property taxes," he said. "It is something that hasn't been thought completely through. I could never figure out exactly what the objective was."
In any case, the bill likely is to become law.
"The governor believes it is a thoughtful resolution to a potentially problematic issue," said Jason Gibbs, spokesman for the governor. "It contains caps to help control rising costs and supports the long-term objective of providing families with access to pre-school programs.
"That is exactly the way to go. A public-private partnership that will protect the private provider network," Gibbs added. "The governor plans to sign it."
Already in place
More than half of the schools across the state already provide pre-kindergarten education in various ways.
Within the Rutland South Supervisory Union, two elementary schools are taking different approaches in offering students preschool.
Clarendon Elementary has had a publicly funded program in place for the past four years at the school. It serves both three- and four-year-olds.
For the first two years, the program was run collaboratively with the Head Start program using one instructor.
"We provided the facility and our own trained staff," said Ruth Ann Barker, principal of Clarendon Elementary. "We've been running entirely on our own for the past two years and it's been very, very successful."
For the program, there is state reimbursement according to the average daily membership, which counts all preschool students at .46 percent as long as they partake in 10 hours of instruction.
"This program is an extremely important piece and we have to make room for it," Barker said about creating classroom space. "As a general rule, the kids coming in from pre-K are better prepared. They're socialized and the peer interaction is at a different level."
Wallingford Elementary School has applied for grant money to help fund the integration of a community, private day care center into the school's activities, at the center.
"Wallingford Elementary School would not take over Wallingford Day Care," said Principal Theresa Mulholland. "Because it's an existing program and it would be silly to do two. This is a more cost effective way to have universal pre-school with something solid and good that already exists."
Affecting day cares
This is really what Vermont talked about with universal preschool, Mulholland said. Private facilities must meet specific qualifications, outlined in the bill, to receive state public preschool funds.
Anissa DeLauri, a private provider, is part of the Focus Group Committee in Rutland City that is studying how to implement the program in the school district. She was frustrated during discussions last year when the subject was initially visited and the district was exploring options.
DeLauri felt the research group was not including private providers or meeting at convenient times to get accurate feedback. But things are getting better.
"I think it's coming along well," said DeLauri about the process. She has been told by Rutland City School officials that there is no room within the schools for a publicly funded preschool program, outside of Essential Early Education (EEE) and Head Start.
"It is a good thing for education services for kids," said DeLauri, who has seven children in her day care.
She also has an associate degree in early education and the program she runs has the top score in the state's child care and early education rating system. "I do have concerns as a taxpayer … but, as long as homecare providers are included."
One issue DeLauri noted was the lack of early childhood programs at the bachelor degree level in the Rutland area.
Preschool is a completely different level of learning and teaching, she said. The only program in the state that offers a bachelor's degree for preschool education is at the University of Vermont in Burlington.
There was much discussion within the Rutland Public City School District throughout last fall about the issue, until the board of commissioners decided to put things on hold until the Legislature took action.
Assistant Superintendent John Stempek led the charge on coordinating discussions with private child care providers and researching whether a program in the district was possible. Officials in the district have repeatedly said there is not room within the existing structures and therefore may work best by coordinating with private facilities.
"We'll probably bring it up again in the fall," said Stempek, who is retiring at the end of this year and will pass the issue to his replacement, Rob Bliss.
Beginning such a program within the district would take at least a year, Stempek said.
The important thing is that early childhood education should be offered in more districts and to more children, Hosford said.
"We now know that children learn exponentially at that age," she said. "The hope is that by getting a good start the children will flourish once they get into public school."
And about 70 percent of the state's parents are employed. That means that many of their children are in some kind of program during some hours of the week.
"It assures 10 hours of some kind of quality experience for these kids," Hosford said.
Contact Louis Porter at firstname.lastname@example.org and Sarah Hinckley at email@example.com.