Senate Committee Takes Up Early Education Provision

MONTPELIER, Vt. –A Senate committee has started taking testimony on a bill that would allow public schools to offer preschool education by counting 3-and 4-year olds in their student population for state education funding.

The bill is an extension of a provision inserted into the budget late in the session last year that caused an uproar.

Critics claim that the bill would lead to publicly funded preschool programs for all students, drive up education spending, and unfairly compete with private day cares. Supporters say the bill simply would put in law what already is in practice. About 131 school districts around the state already offer preschool programs to 2,950 students, education officials said.

On Friday, several day care providers and vocal critics of the bill testified before the Senate Education Committee.

“It is inconceivable to ask taxpayers at this time to fund an expansion of the role of public education to include all 3- and 4-year-olds, or to subsidize the child-care costs of middle class and wealthy parents,” said Robert Roper, director of the Vermont chapter of FreedomWorks, a group that promotes lower taxes and less government.

School districts would either offer early education programs at schools or collaborate with private providers. About 70 of the 131 school districts now have contracts with private providers, education officials said. Of the 101 districts that do not offer preschool programs 34 said they were considering starting an early education program, and roughly 25 said they would contract with a private provider, according to a recent survey by the Vermont Department of Education.

The bill also would set aside $200,000 from the education fund to help expand regional collaboratives that offer early education.

Several day-care operators told the committee they would lose clients who chose the free program, putting them at a competitive disadvantage if they didn’t qualify to offer the subsidized programs.

Anissa DeLauri, who runs a home day care in Rutland and has an associate’s degree in early childhood education, could not offer a public school program at her day care because she does not have a teacher’s license.

“There need to be other options when it comes to determining who is a ‘qualified teacher,'” she said.

She said she favors a different bill that would allow day-care providers that meet certain standards to be qualified and would limit the public preschool programs to low-income and learning disadvantaged students.

Sen. Jim Condos, D-Chittenden, a sponsor of the bill that would allow public schools to count the 3- and 4-year-olds, said it sets up standards for early education.

“The intent of the bill is to provide early education opportunities to our children, 3- and 4-year-olds, not necessarily in a school setting. It can be done through a day-care center as long as they meet certain criteria. If it’s public money, you’ve got to have standards,” he said. “It creates a framework, accountability and standards and it basically ensures that the money is well spent rather than being thrown out there for nothing.”

In fiscal year 2004, public early education programs, including special education, cost $21 million, said William Talbot, chief financial officer for the Department of Education. “We think that it’s possible that up to $12 million was special education costs,” he said.

The bill is intended to improve student performance in school and prepare students for kindergarten, supporters said.

“I’m a sincere believer that over time this is going to save the state lots of money, millions and millions of dollars in less costs to special ed, less costs to remedial education needs, and less costs to social and human service needs as time goes on, and specifically less costs to the corrections side,” Condos said.