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In this issue:
Notes from the September 18th Early Ed Study Committee:
Notes from the September 18th Early Ed Study Committee
What Principles are “Guiding” the Committee?
The first major conversation of the morning was in regard to a draft of “Guiding Principles,” prepared by committee member Steve Dale. This was, by and large, a very loose, philosophical back and forth that revealed some interesting points and raised some necessary questions about what the Committee is being “guided” toward? Here they are:
1) “The first five years of a child’s life are the most important developmentally.”
Supporters of U-Pre-K have argued that certain aspects of brain development occur during the first five years, therefore we need to get kids into school earlier. However, studies like the one done by the C.D. Howe Institute of U-Pre-K in Quebec (See also the David Elkind article link in this issue) indicate that healthy early brain development in kids is really more dependent upon being at home with a parent. Developmental harm can occur when children are separated from their mothers at these young ages and/or if children are forced too early into an academic structure. If this is the case, universal preschool is exactly the wrong thing to do.
2) “The family plays the most important role in the life of a young child. Families have primary responsibility for caring for their child and assuring the child receives appropriate care, health, education.”
This sounds nice, but what does this mean? The family is primarily responsibility for financing their child’s pre-k? (Universal pre-K advocates would say, no). Families are primarily responsible for determining the appropriate curriculum? (Again, universal pre-K advocates would say, no.) The key words in this guiding principle are “appropriate” (what is appropriate, and who decides what is appropriate?) and “receives.” Note that it does NOT say families have primary responsibility for… “giving” their child appropriate care etc, or “determining” appropriate care. As such, one could interpret this in such a way that the family’s “important” role is an obligation to sign their child up for the government approved program.
3) The broader community has a vested interest in assuring that all children have access to the care and support needed to support their growth and development. Failure to meet the needs of young children results in significant societal costs later on.
This, translated, means the “broader community” (government), “has a vested interest in assuring” (has the power and authority to mandate), “that all children” (universal) “have access to the care and support, etc.” (public preschool). “Failure to meet the needs, etc…” (And we intend to do so.)
Here they are clearly laying the groundwork for a legal mandate to fund universal pre-K, providing “all children” with access to a government program that -- by simple virtue of its legally articulated guiding principles – meets a “care and support” threshold determined by the legislature.
4) Child growth and development occurs in integrated environments. It is not appropriate to segment services and supports.
This guiding principle is designed to eliminate any possibility of a non-universal solution. There is no basis for this principle is in terms of facts or research since all early education programs with any long term success records (High/Scope, Abecedarian, Chicago) did not occur in integrated environments. They were segmented services targeted specifically at “at-risk” kids. High Scope, the most cited to by supporters as an example of u-pre-k success, was entirely segregated and included only at-risk African-Americans with IQs between 70 and 85.
Ironically, if followed this guiding principle could disallow the committee from recommending the very kind of programs that the evidence shows actually work -- those targeted toward “at-risk” kids.
5 & 6) Early Care and education is best provided in locations that are convenient to families and in a fashion which minimize transitions for children. / Whenever possible and appropriate, early care and education should be provided through quality private providers. (This supports the overall strength and stability of the system which serves children birth – 6 an, in many cases, beyond, as part of after school care. It also reduces transitions for children who may need full day care. (Note: It was recommended that these last two principles be combined.)
Of concern here are the concept of “possible and appropriate” collaboration with private providers, and the phrase “minimize transitions for children.”
Again, both of these ideas appear harmless enough, or even good. But what seems like a directive to collaborate with private providers is in fact the opposite. When is something possible and appropriate? When whoever makes the decision says it is. And who would make the decisions in regard to universal pre-k? The public school districts.
So, then add to that power of determining what is appropriate or possible the charge to “minimize transitions.” Does that mean minimize transportation transitions during the day from ed-site to care-site? Transitions from pre-K to kindergarten in terms of creating the most seamless curriculum? Winooski Superintendent Steve Chattman testified that the goal of universal preschool is “continuity of curriculum no matter where the child moves within Vermont.” Is that “possible” utilizing mostly private providers?
The school could argue very easily that it is most “appropriate” to offer the services themselves in-house, and not “possible” to incorporate private providers efficiently or effectively, and they get to decide for themselves whether or not they’re right. This is like me telling my kids we will have fish for dinner! whenever they determine it is possible and appropriate to eat it -- thus virtually guaranteeing it will never happen.
It appears to VER that these principles (which are still being formalized) are guiding the committee toward a pre-determined outcome recommending universal preschool.
Testimony Confirms Some Suspicions:
The next portion of day’s activities included testimony from collaborating private providers and representatives from their school districts.
1. Is this for the children or for the adults?
According to Sherry Carleson, the YMCA cares for 170 three and four year olds in four different sites. The total budget for this is $870,000, 20 percent of which comes from ADM subsidies. That’s a total per/pupil cost of just over $5100 per child the taxpayers kicking in just over $1000 per child. This begs the question, if the school district is counting these kids at .46 of ADM (which should capture an amount to closer to $3000) and only $1000 is going from the school district to the provider, where’s the other 2K? (See “Accountability”).
Asked what the direct benefits the subsidy created, Carleson cited salary increases (up 20%) and increased benefits (up 13%) for the adults. But when committee member Chris Robbins asked how the kids have benefited, the answer was, “we don’t have any data.”
Lou Anne Benninauti, has run Robin’s Nest for twenty-one years, but only began collaborating with the school district to receive a $24,000 subsidy a few years ago. She says she uses the money primarily to lower costs to parents. Chairman Kilmartin asked if Robin’s Nest provided “high quality” preschool before she began collaborating with the school district. Benninauti answered, “Yes.” But she was doing so “on the backs of her customers.”
Question: Isn’t that how businesses work? Why are the taxpayers giving $24,000 to a private business that was already providing a high quality product to willing buyers? The children have not benefited from this; they’re getting the same service they were getting before. The taxpayers certainly don’t benefit. The community doesn’t benefit because this policy has not created more high quality preschool. Other private childcare providers in the area are now saddled with a competitive disadvantage. A handful of adult parents do benefit from this in that they get taxpayer funded break on a childcare they could already afford, as evidenced by the fact that they were paying for it. How is this policy justified?
2) Accountability – “Confusion, Obfuscation and Opaqueness”
In response to the day’s frustrating scarcity of clear information regarding real costs to taxpayers, how these programs are funded and from what sources, and if children are actually benefiting from them, Chairman Kilmartin articulated the problem, “This funding system fosters confusion, obfuscation, and opaqueness!”
Bruce Chattman, Superintendent of the Winooski School District, got some laughs with his retort: “We didn’t write Act 60!”
Kilmartin began a general discussion with, “We want to have cost transparency and accountability.”
Vermont Education Commissioner Richard Cate ended the “accountability” dialogue with a shocking declaration: “That simplicity would force a single line appropriation [in a school budget], and it may not be there from year to year.” In other words, if voters get a chance to exercise local control, they actually might not want these programs. (Overwhelmingly they don’t. On Sept. 25th, Rutland City scrapped plans for a U-Pre-K program due to outspoken community opposition). This appeared to be a totally unacceptable scenario to Cate.
3) The Objective: No Obstacles to Expansion
The Commissioner of Education’s desire to, in effect, disenfranchise local voters revealed a common (but usually adamantly denied by U-Pre-K supporters) thread to the universal pre-k debate in Vermont. While proponents pay lip service to an “inclusive dialogue that reaches out to all parties,” what they really want is a clear path to the money.
When the question was asked, why aren’t there more collaborations then there are, the answer was essentially that local voters (taxpayers) didn’t want these programs. That pesky democracy thing!
Cate lamented that under the current system, school districts “have to go to voters and get them to agree to fund this program without state funding for two years. This is an obstacle. If we eliminate this, there will be more collaborations.” This appears to be his objective within the committee.
Others complained about “the ambiguity of the funding.” South Burlington Principle Sue Luck summed it up most clearly: “Hesitation is based on the frail nature of this funding.” Remove the obstacles and, “You will see a tremendous buy-in to this program.”
Principle Luck is right. In 2002, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco gave the go-ahead to expand her state’s pilot programs to full universal preschool for 4 year olds. In just two years, enrolment jumped from roughly 2000 kids to 9,796. 41 of the state's 68 school districts were taking part, up from 11. And, the tax bill exploded from $15 million to $55 million in just 2 years.
They want and need to hear from you!
An amusing dust-up: Committee Committing Candor
On September 27th the Summer Study committee sent out a press release titled: “Legislative Committee to Consider More Tax-Supported Education and Child Care for Vermont's 3- & 4-Year-Olds.” Shortly, another email came along asking everyone to not just disregard that email, but destroy it!
It seems that Committee Vice Chair, Senator Jim Condos, flipped out that he had been left out of the loop, the result being that headline might be a little too, shall we say “straight forward.” He demanded it be retracted, and concocted a story to blame a staff member for an error.
On the 28th, a new release was sent out with the title: “Legislative Committee to Consider Public Education for 3- and 4-year-olds.” Really, what’s the difference?
Related Article: Much Too Early by David Elkind [Editor’s Note: A MUST READ FOR ALL INTERESTED IN THE UNIVERASAL PRE-K DEBATE] http://www.hoover.org/publications/ednext/3385081.html