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Press Release

Behind the Scenes on Universal Preschool


08/31/06, Stowe Reporter

On Aug. 22, the Rutland City School Board unveiled a plan to start a “universal” preschool program. If it passes, this will ultimately be a taxpayer-funded, public school program open to all 3- and 4-year-olds, regardless of special or financial need.

Why should the people in Stowe care? Because, in 18 months or so, you will be getting a bill for this.

Universal preschool programs have been creeping into the Vermont public-school system on a small scale for some time, tapping the state education fund through a controversial (some would argue illegal) loophole in State Board of Education rules. But the real push to bring universal pre-K to Vermont on a grand scale began in earnest in 2004 with S.166 — and so did a clear and steady outcry of opposition from the general public.

Even though universal pre-K advocates raise some noble-sounding objectives, such as making preschool more available and more affordable for those who need it, legislation designed to make universal pre-K the law of the land has failed three years in a row. The reason is the reality does not match the rhetoric.

In terms of making pre-K more affordable, Vermont already has programs such as Head Start, Essential Early Education and Success by Six to help low-income and “at-risk” kids get access to appropriate early education. As such, adding new “universal” programs is really just a costly means of subsidizing the child care of upper-income parents who can already afford it and, in practice, often ends up diverting scarce resources away from the kids and families who need help the most.

Another serious objection to a public-school takeover of preschool is that it will decimate the vibrant and diverse, primarily home-based child-care businesses that currently serve 22,000 Vermont children from just after birth to age 5. Apart from eliminating the variety and convenience for parents that this free market caters to, the loss of these businesses could make day care for kids up to age 2 extremely difficult to find.

To sort out all this controversy, the Vermont State Board of Education formed a committee to study taxpayer-funded, universal pre-K in depth.

Last February, after months of research, the Committee on Early Education recommended against Vermont pursuing “universal” preschool, citing high costs and no compelling evidence that universal programs provide any long-term benefit to mainstream children.

So given all this, why would anybody in Vermont still be pushing these programs? And, how are they finding any takers in the middle of a statewide property-tax crisis?

Many who support the idea of the public-school system replacing most of the 400 to 500 private child-care providers we have today do so out of a genuine feeling that it must be what’s best for the kids. (A look at the real-world track record of public universal pre-K is too big a subject to touch on here.)

But there are some special-interest groups at work here whose motivations are not so pure.

A big reason Vermont pubic schools are suddenly gung-ho for universal preschool stems from the demographic decline in the number of K-12 students. It has dropped from 106,000 in 1997 to about 96,000, and is expected to fall as low as 92,000 in just a few years. The result is empty public-school classrooms, and a pressing desire to fill them with Vermont’s 15,000 3- and 4-year-olds — even though throwing kids this young into an institutional school environment with K-6 students is probably not the healthiest situation.

The other motivation driving the public schools into the preschool business is No Child Left Behind. Just last month, 61 (22 percent) of Vermont’s public schools failed to meet average yearly progress standards under this law. Schools that fail repeatedly risk losing a substantial amount of federal funding.

Many public-school administrators are now looking to universal pre-K as a way to address this. The hope is that, by getting kids into public-school system two years earlier — and into a one-size-fits-all pre-K curriculum geared toward training kids to pass these standardized tests — schools can protect themselves from the penalties of No Child Left Behind.

However, this short-term “solution” comes at with long-term negative consequences for the children. Studies call the phenomenon “fade-out,” but I personally think “burnout” is a more appropriate description of what hits these kids, usually around fourth grade.

The groups that see universal, taxpayer-funded, public preschool as the future are undeterred by legislative failure, or public displeasure. Mark Sustic of the Vermont Community Preschool Collaborative, the group spearheading the effort, reportedly explained to the Rutland City School Board that it is going to “make universal preschool so prevalent, the Legislature will have no choice but to pass it.” And the plan for doing so is truly outrageous.

The preschool collaborative has been touring the state, telling local school boards how they can lower their own property-tax bills by adding a preschool and scamming, for lack of a better word, the Act 60/68 funding formula. The Rutland Herald summed up how the scheme works in a recent editorial: “School districts that adopt the program … lower their per-pupil spending, because each (pre-K) child counts as 0.46 of a pupil against enrollment, and the $2,000 annual cost per preschooler is well below the $11,000 state average for students through grade 12. So, districts without pre-K subsidize those with, adding fiscal pressure to grow such programs.”

Of course, when somebody increases the total cost of education in the state, but pays an even smaller portion of that cost out of their own pocket, somebody else gets stuck with a much bigger bill — like Stowe.

Our politicians pay lip service to reforming the inequities of Act 60/68. But many of these same people are working hard behind the scenes to support and encourage exactly what’s going on in Rutland City and elsewhere around Vermont. Last session, Rep. Carolyn Branagan tried to place a moratorium on any new programs like this until the Legislature fully studied the costs/benefits of universal preschool and passed legislation officially authorizing — legalizing — universal pre-K. Common sense? It failed 78-49, largely along party lines.

Rob Roper is state director for FreedomWorks-Vermont and editor of the Vermont Education Report. He lives in Stowe.