Bright and Early

Come this fall, several new early-education programs will be in place throughout Vermont, thanks to a unique collaborative of philanthropists, education experts, and private foundations.

In the past legislative session, early education or publicly funded pre-K programs were derided by some and extolled by others. In the end, lawmakers agreed to study the issue.

The first meeting of Pre-Kindergarten Education Committee took place on Aug. 22 in Montpelier, just two days before a special committee empanelled by Gov. Jim Douglas was to meet. The governor’s Building Bright Futures Council was created to advise Douglas on a wide range of issues, not just education, facing children younger than 6.

“Ensuring the health, safety, and developmental well being of all Vermont children is a top priority for me and my administration,” Douglas said in announcing the council’s creation. “To this end, the Building Bright Futures Council is charged with supporting the creation of an integrated system of early childhood care, health, and education that is fiscally sustainable.”

Douglas’ Democratic challenger this fall, Scudder Parker, this week also unveiled his plan to support preschool programs and education.

Pre-K advocates in Vermont say 13,000 3- and 4-year-olds are currently enrolled in some form of preschool program in Vermont, and that publicly funded preschool programs have been around for nearly two decades.

Supporters of early education caution people about making too many parallels between the general $1.1 billion K-12 education budget in Vermont, which serves roughly 100,000 students, and the $15 million spent on programs that provide many 3- and 4-year-olds with 10 hours of preschool weekly.

Advocates say the problem isn’t that the current system isn’t unsustainable, but that it’s unaffordable for many parents, and wages are too low to attract providers into the field. In short, they say there needs to be some additional support from public and private funds.

“Our goal is not to have these programs spring up like little mushrooms in the countryside after a rainstorm,” said Mary Schwartz, executive director of the Child Care Fund of Vermont, which has fostered the Vermont Community Preschool Collaborative (VCPC). She is also a member of the governor’s newly formed council.

“Our goal is to improve the quality of the existing system, whether they are private centers or private homes, or are religious-based or not,” she added.

VCPC’s goal is not to push all kids into a publicly funded and operated system, Schwartz said. Instead, the program encourages public schools and child-care providers to create, strengthen, and sustain high-quality preschool opportunities that can continue to be supported with reimbursement through the state education fund.

Under current rules, a new preschool program does not receive reimbursements from the state’s education fund for 18 months. That has kept some communities from starting new programs in recent years. And that’s where VCPC comes in.

VCPC is funded by several philanthropic partners, four of which are associated with the Vermont Community Foundation. It provides up to $15,000 in grants to help a community design a pre-K program, and up to $30,000 for the first year of the program. In the second year, the program receives half of its first-year level of funding, said Mark Sustic, VCPC’s director.

“We are looking for partnerships with high-quality programs, whether they are in the home, in private centers, or in the public schools,” said Schwartz.

The programs that VCPC has helped to develop must include provisions to include home-based providers and centers, said Sustic. Two grant applications were denied because the proposals did not include collaboration with private providers, he noted.

Schwartz and Sustic said other VCPC long-term goals include finding ways to ensure that private providers receive money so they can improve their skills, get additional schooling, or work with mentors who are licensed teachers. Under some rules being examined by the state, even home-care providers may have to be either licensed teachers or have bachelor’s degrees. That could be onerous for many providers, Schwartz admits.

“We don’t want to see a system that closes the doors on very good, quality home programs just because their teachers aren’t licensed,” she said.

Schwartz believes that expansion of public preschool will benefit families at all income levels, but especially those who have a hard time paying for childcare and do not receive a child-care subsidy.

“There was an increase in the child-care subsidy this past year, but that was the first time it’s been raised in 10 years, and it only serves people at 100 percent of the federal poverty level,” she said.

That’s why VCPC and its backers plan to help communities start these programs until Vermont makes a decision about whether it needs to fund them.

The Rutland experiment

In recent weeks, Rutland has become ground zero for the preschool debate, now that the Legislature is out of session and the campaign season is underway.

Anissa DeLauri, who runs a home-based preschool in Rutland, often works with children who are in state custody or in the care of protective services. “Children in protective services are often better served in a home environment that is both nurturing and loving,” she said.

She is working with public officials in Rutland to ensure that the concerns of home-based providers are heard, and that they are included in this proposed program.

She hopes that a new program will include her and other private home-based providers, but said she has been frustrated because the meetings held to design the system were all in the middle of the day when she had children to care for.

By the time she did was able to attend a meeting, the plan was being sent to the school board and she was told that she would be collaborating with three parent-child centers in the district.

DeLauri said this left her feeling as if the district wasn’t really interested in hearing her concerns or working with her on more than a cursory level.

DeLauri said the Rutland plan does include a stipulation to keep money aside to help home-based providers pay for classes and credentialing necessary to be part of the collaboration. “I hope [the superintendent] does indeed follow through with that,” she said.

She said she is concerned that the system may start off as a collaboration, but with dropping school enrollment and budget pressures the public schools will use this as a way to fund existing operations.

Rob Roper, of Vermont FreedomWorks, and a critic of public preschool expansion, believes that public schools will come to dominate any system, and eventually push private providers out of the market.

Roper said proponents of public preschool lost the battle in the Legislature and are now working to expand preschool programs through well-funded media campaigns and outreach. “Vermont is a tiny little media Petri dish and that is what’s going on now. This is not something that is being called for by Vermont parents and is being foisted to some extent by these groups,” he said.

While there are collaborative efforts with private providers, the curriculum, standards, and credential requirements are dictated by the public schools, and the “public school is going to regulate them and determine who is qualified,” Roper said.

By pushing a single curriculum, Roper added, preschools won’t accommodate diverse learning styles, and like the public system, parents who disagree will essentially pay twice — once on their tax bills and again out-of-pocket to private providers who do not meet the program’s mandates, he said.

Roper said the state should continue to invest in public programs for at-risk students, but otherwise should leave preschool to the free market or perhaps add vouchers so that parents can choose any provider of their choice, rather than ones deemed OK by the state.

Sustic, who has helped start public preschool programs in Franklin County for nearly 20 years, said he does not believe that home-based providers have been pushed out of the market.

“When we started we said that we were going to work with child-care providers as the first priority and plan to incrementally add year to year the number of students enrolled, and we had discussions with these providers about whether they saw expansion as an option down the road,” he said.

Based on his experience in Franklin County, Sustic said he is able to advise other communities to include private providers, centers, and public school officials. Most communities are doing this because there is a recognized need to support private providers, centers, and parents, and help create a system that helps children succeed, he said.

“The tipping point is often a community recognizing that early education is one of the tools to be successful in a K-12 system, whether it’s a public school or private school or home schooling,” said Sustic.

“You have a community talking about this being a way to make kids successful in their lives, that’s what drives it. Then people begin to talk about a child- care system that needs to be better supported, its providers paid more, collaboration among public and private providers, etc. But, it’s the initial recognition that this makes a difference. If that doesn’t happen, then the system doesn’t go anywhere,” he said.

In 2005 and 2006, VCPC funded four projects: planning activities in Rutland, and first-year programs in Bennington, Manchester, and Highgate.

Those three communities will also receive additional program funding this year, as will new programs in Cavendish, Grand Isle, Middlebury, and Vergennes. In addition, Poultney is expected to receive a planning grant, Sustic said.

There are other towns scattered throughout the state that are either not interested in grant funding or are still too early in their discussions. Or they just want to know how to do it the right way, he said.

Rutland was placed on a fast track after school officials thought they might have to have a program in place by July 1 in order to receive funding — a provision in one piece of proposed legislation. That bill did not pass, but Rutland continued its planning, and could have a program up and running in several weeks, Sustic said.

A few of VCPC’s funders said they would be willing to help Rutland if it had a program ready to go by September, Sustic said.

Vermont in the national scope

Vermont is one of five states, along with the District of Columbia, that are considered leaders in making pre-kindergarten programs more available to parents and children, said Stephanie Rubin, the state program director of the national organization Pre-K Now.

Among this group, which includes Maine, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Wisconsin, Vermont is considered at the forefront of using what is called a “diverse delivery” system, and by using its state education budget to fund programs. That means that Vermont already is using private child-care centers and home-based providers, along with public school settings, to provide early education to children.

In other states, Pre-K Now has funded large-scale education campaigns that include advertising, brochures, and flyers sent to the public and elected officials. The group is also supporting collaborations among groups and individuals working to expand early education. They don’t directly fund programs, Rubin added.

Pre-K Now’s efforts are designed to dispel some of the myths about expanded early education.

“Clearly, some small child-care centers and home providers have a fear that as pre-K expands that they might lose some slots,” said Rubin. “But the key is to work with schools and state government to make sure there is wide access to a wide range of providers.”

The best early-education programs in the country, like those in Vermont, use a wide variety of providers. Any expansion of Vermont’s efforts should include money to help existing providers receive additional education and training, she said.

“The state should consider the workforce development needs of the child-care providers,” said Rubin.

Pre-K Now has provided Vermont groups with some technical assistance, but no funding. That could change soon, however.

Pre-K Now is coming to Vermont in late September to meet with members of the preschool collaborative funded through Child Care Fund of Vermont to determine what the national organization will bring to Vermont.

Rubin said her organization hopes that any plan Vermont approves includes a variety of providers. “Pre-K programs that include a variety of providers have significant success and families have the opportunity to choose which provider which makes sense for their child and is more appropriate for their child in the community.”