Committee recommends better coordinating early education programs

Vermont’s early childhood education programs need better coordination but should still be funded by tax dollars, a special committee recommended Thursday.

The panel’s recommendations, which are expected to be drafted into legislative proposals, may not quell criticisms that those who work in public education are trying to take over private day care and other early education programs.

But the committee said there was good work being done toward providing early education to 3- and 4-year-olds, both through the Education Department and the Department for Children and Families, which should continue.

“We’re recommending moderate improvements to the status quo,” said Rep. Duncan Kilmartin, R-Newport, chairman of the panel that examined the issues.

The committee was created last year by the Legislature after an uproar over whether money should flow from the Education Fund to pre-kindergarten programs. Critics complained that using money raised through the statewide property tax was a way of expanding public school to 3- and 4-year-olds.

Supporters said the practice had been in place since well before the statewide property tax was established and was doing nothing to harm the private day care centers that have provided the bulk of care to young children.

Rob Roper, the recently-elected chairman of the state Republican Party, was disappointed in the new report. Roper, a former state director of Freedom Works, a national group dedicated to lower taxes and smaller government, was active arguing against using state education tax money for day cares.

He said the new recommendations would do nothing to keep public schools out of early education.

“The report that’s been put out is really just a pressing down of the K-through-12 system onto preschool, and that’s tragic,” he said. “What you’re seeing now is movement toward one size fits all in which you’re trying to fit round pegs into square holes.”

But state government supports preschool in other ways, pumping about $20 million in subsidies and other support into the programs, money that can be used at any day care a parent chooses. The committee recommended that such freedom be introduced into preschool programs sponsored by public schools.

That also happens to a limited degree. Some school districts contract with private organizations, such as YMCAs, to provide preschool.

Kilmartin and the committee vice chairman, Sen. James Condos, D-Chittenden, said such flexibility should be expanded.

Condos said he was pleased that the commission had determined that using money from the education fund had been appropriate all along.

“What we’ve accomplished is we’re putting some concrete and concise guidelines together for the Legislature to codify this so the debate will end,” Condos said.