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Shortly after 8 a.m. on a recent weekday morning, 3-year-old Emma Kelley walked into her preschool room at Orchard Elementary School in South Burlington alongside her mother. Tricia Kelley smiled as Emma looked at a table bearing nametags for each student in the class, recognized her name and plucked up the appropriate tag.
As Emma scampered off to play with her friends, her mother praised the preschool program, which opened last year and already has a waiting list. "It's wonderful, wonderful," Kelley said. "She has grown so much in just two months. ... We're thrilled."
The new preschool slots at Orchard are partially underwritten with public money in an arrangement that some advocates for young children would like to see expand in Vermont. They argue that making preschool more available and affordable to Vermont children will boost academic performance, improve child well-being and help families struggling to pay for quality programs.
"This is a place where the public can make an investment, and we should be making an investment in our children," said Barbara Postman, policy coordinator for the Vermont Children's Forum in Montpelier. "We have to support our young children."
Opponents of increased government funding for preschool say the benefits fade as children hit third or fourth grade and that Vermont, one of the top spenders in the nation when it comes to kindergarten through 12th-grade education, can't afford to add on two new grades.
Some critics say Vermont's system, which allows schools to partner with private preschool providers on or off-site, should not continue.
"There is no accountability in the system as it is now; there is no regulation; there is no oversight. It's a mess," said Rob Roper, state director for Freedom Works Vermont and editor of Vermonters for Better Education, which advocates for school choice.
New preschool slots
Vermont's publicly funded preschool programs are slowly growing. For years such programs were largely limited to youngsters who have disabilities, live in poverty or qualify as English language learners. Many of these programs, such as Head Start, are federally funded.
During the past four years, however, some public school districts have broadened their programs beyond at-risk children. The state has allowed schools to tap into education funds to cover up to 10 hours of preschool education per student per week. School districts are allowed to offer the services themselves or contract with private providers.
Just how much state and federal money is spent on preschool programs in Vermont is unclear. Rep. Duncan Kilmartin, R-Newport, chairman of the Legislative Committee on Prekindergarten Education, likened the various state and federally funded programs to a "crazy quilt" and said it was difficult to get a handle on annual spending.
"I think we may be between $50 million and $70 million when you consider the bigger picture of child development experiences," Kilmartin said.
The Legislature created his committee this year to study publicly funded preschool after a bill that would have likely increased spending failed to pass. Kilmartin is skeptical about expanded funding.
"One of the big questions is, have we reached the point where Rome reached -- where we want government to be the source of good and plenty and do what historically parents and their extended families have done best, raise children? It comes down to, who do we want to raise our children?" Kilmartin said.
The Orchard preschool that Emma Kelley attends is one example of public-private collaborations. It is staffed and run by the Greater Burlington YMCA but located in a regular classroom at Orchard. It is open only to district parents. The students in the classroom, mostly ages 3 and 4, and a few age 5, visit the school library, play on the playground and share in schoolwide activities such as last week's fire safety program. Parents must pay for the program, but receive a discount. Emma Kelley's parents pay $143 a week for a full-time slot in the program.
That's a great deal, and the fact the program is located in the neighborhood school where Emma will attend kindergarten is another plus, said Kelley, who needed full-time care because she works. "That's one of the reasons why we chose it. A lot of the kids are neighborhood kids, kids she'll be going to school with."
The YMCA is in partnership with the Chittenden South Supervisory Union and the Burlington, South Burlington, Colchester and Winooski school districts. The YMCA serves 321 children ages 3 to 5 in nine locations. The organization receives a total of about $200,000 annually from the schools through the partnerships and offers parents in the various districts tuition breaks ranging from 12 percent to 20 percent.
Since the YMCA began entering into partnerships in 2002, it has been able to create new preschool slots and increase teacher salaries. YMCA teachers have attended trainings alongside school district teachers, thus improving their knowledge.
The partnerships have improved and expanded the preschool services the YMCA can offer to families, said Sherry Carlson, director of early childhood and family programs for the Greater Burlington YMCA.
"It's just really made a huge benefit to children and programs, in terms of quality, continuity," Carlson said. "I just haven't seen anything have such a dramatic impact on children and families, and I've been in this field for 19 years"
Carlson is not advocating for a major increase in public preschool funding. She doesn't believe that is realistic given the current education tax debate. She is urging Vermont politicians to maintain the current system. "Mostly we are very concerned that the funds are going to discontinue."
Last week the Legislative Committee on Prekindergarten Education held a public hearing that was carried over Vermont Interactive Television to studios around the state. Many preschool teachers and public school administrators spoke in support of expanded funding, as did some parents and taxpayers.
No-brainer not a freebie
As supporters called expanded funding a "no-brainer," critics raised objections. Some private preschool and daycare providers said public funding would inevitably flow to public schools and put them out of business. Others said Vermont property taxes are spiraling out of control.
St. Albans radio personality Paul Beaudry disputed comments from preschool supporters who said programs can be started up with little financial impact. "The money's gotta come from somewhere," Beaudry said. "It's not free."
At least one person who testified said Vermonters should be allowed to specifically vote on whether to start preschool programs. Most programs are approved as part of general school spending budgets, not as separate items.
Advocates for publicly funded preschool say the programs are not meeting the need. Many families can't find good preschool programs or find that they can't afford them, Postman said. It's a public responsibility to make sure that all Vermont children have a good start, she said. "Because all children aren't getting it, by any stretch of the imagination."