Vermont Considers Preschool Programs in Public Schools

School choice supporters in Vermont scrambled to shore up support for private preschool providers in early June, trying to keep the state Senate from overriding the governor’s veto of a budget bill when it convenes later this summer.

Private early education providers, which contract with the state to help prepare at-risk 3- and 4-year-olds for kindergarten, said a rider attached to a state budget bill vetoed June 4 could put them out of business by allowing public school districts to set up free preschools that would siphon $5,000 from the state education fund for every child attending 10 or more hours per week.

Current System Confusing

While the Senate Education Committee deliberated on a bill that would establish public pre-K programs (S.132), Chairman Sen. Don Collins (D-Franklin) took matters into his own hands as the session was drawing to a close. He introduced the universal early education wording in the fiscal appropriations bill as a rider, circumventing the legislative process.

Gov. James Douglas (R) vetoed the budget bill for unrelated reasons, giving opponents another chance to eliminate the rider.

Currently, preschool students in Vermont are supported precariously by public funds–a matter all sides of the issue agree must be clarified. Vermont’s Early Education Initiative, established in 1987, works with private childcare centers, public school districts, Head Start programs, and community agencies to prepare for kindergarten children who are economically disadvantaged, developmentally delayed, at risk of abuse or neglect, or who have limited English skills.

Under the current system, low-income parents can use state-funded subsidies to send their 3- and 4-year-olds to the pre-K program of their choosing.

Working for Clarity

Libby Sternberg, executive director of Vermonters for Better Education, explained the statutes currently do not specify how to count preschool students.

The existing program “only addresses preschool students when they are at-risk, low income, or ESL [English as a Second Language] students,” Sternberg said. “In the past two or three years there has been a move to codify the methods for counting students by setting very specific parameters on how to use state funds for public schools. The [existing] statute is murky.”

The complicated formula Collins’ rider proposes to use for determining pre-K funding obscures the real effect of the bill, which is to move children from private preschools into the public schools, said John McClaughry, president of the Ethan Allen Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Concord, Vermont. The more children a public school district can count in its preschool program, the more money it can claim from the state–up to $21 million more, McClaughry said. Collins’ rider would give public schools near-total control over pre-K education.

“I can only assume these rules were made specifically to confuse taxpayers,” McClaughry said. “By adding two more grades below kindergarten, the system can find the new pupils that will help to justify its ever-increasing spending. The teachers union, of course, will be delighted to enroll hundreds of new pre-K teachers, collect their dues, and add them to its political action machine.”

Understanding Universal Choice

Though the existing program was created to serve “at-risk” 3- and 4-year-olds, the current legislation doesn’t limit funding only to those students, Collins said, defending his rider as a strategic move.

The rider “encourages” public school systems to work with private daycare providers, but does not mandate it. That, said Rob Roper, state director of Freedomworks–a grassroots organization dedicated to fighting for lower taxes, smaller government, and greater economic opportunities–hurts religious and private preschools by providing free schooling to all 3- and 4-year-olds.

Dividing Funds

McClaughry agreed. “Vermont schools are losing population but spending more,” he said. “Free public preschools will destroy independent daycare centers.”

Sternberg said the rider may hurt even private facilities that contract with a public school system. The money a private provider is given may be far less than the amount given to the school district.

“If you get public funds flowing, then public school services are free,” she said. “There are only a few public systems that have contracted with private providers, and there is no guarantee that the money would follow the child dollar-for-dollar.”

Giving Providers a Voice

Collins said his rider is better for students and very clear.

“I’m here for the kids,” he said. “All this language does is basically say to people in the schools, ‘Yes, you can draw down state funds [for early education].’

“The childcare community will have a place at the table; they will be heard,” he said. “I’m not giving them a pen and a blank check, but they will have a voice.”

Aaron Atwood (aatwood5776@yahoo.com) is a freelance writer in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

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