2017-02-16 / News

Committee chair exposes cracks in Vermont pre-K equity

Lou Varricchio
Vermont Watchdog

During a meeting of the House Education Committee last week, chair Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, noted that the increase of disruptive students in the classroom is a growing area of concern in Vermont’s pre-kindergarten milieu.

Disruptive behavior by some youngsters, according to Sharpe, has been noticeable since the implementation and expansion of universal pre-K programs, starting with Act 166 in 2014.

He also said that Act 60, the Equal Educational Opportunity Act, has failed to create equity since it was enacted in 1997. The chair also lumped Act 68, the school funding law, alongside Act 60.

Champions, costs and outcomes

Universal pre-kindergarten is championed by many early childhood educators and advocates, as well as legislators, as the best means available to help form the developing brains of young people.

“Ninety percent of it happens by the time kids are 5 or 6 years old,” former Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin, Vermont’s biggest pre-K champion, said in 2014.

Among universal pre-K’s many advocates in the state is Building Bright Futures, a nonprofit public-private partnership with influence in the area of state policy making. Act 166 lawmakers designated Building Bright Futures as the entity responsible for monitoring any issues arising during the law’s implementation.

In January Shumlin’s successor, Republican Gov. Phil Scott, endorsed Building Bright Futures’ annual data report as the new administration began focusing its attention on shifting budget funds to support early childhood education as well as state colleges.

While universal pre-K has advocates, it has critics, too. In general, these opponents ask unpopular questions such as, Who pays for it? and Does the program accomplish what it sets out to do?

Currently, parents enrolled in Vermont’s pre-K program receive up to $3,000 per child in tuition reimbursements from the state. Last year, the pre-K law was expanded to provide 10 hours per week of taxpayer-funded pre-K education for 3- to 5- year-olds not enrolled in a kindergarten program. The program runs 35 weeks a year.

According to Haley Dover, public information officer for the Agency of Education, the full cost of universal pre-K is uncertain. An attempt to pin down the costs will be made in the agency’s forthcoming Pre-K Evaluation Report. “This cost is only from the 2015-16 school year which is (going to show) partial implementation, not full,” Dover told Watchdog.

As for what milestones and metrics are being implemented to determine the program’s success, Dover said these also will appear in the upcoming report.

At last week’s Education Committee meeting, Sharpe wondered aloud about the unintended consequences of the state playing a parenting role in the lives of very young children.

“I applaud your efforts,” Sharpe said, addressing pre-K expansion advocates, “but are we creating these agencies to replace parents because we’ve created a culture where mom and dad get up every day and go do work and aren’t a part of their kids’ lives? Did we create this problem by creating a culture where children are without parents so much of their life?”

news release from the governor’s office last June states that “70 percent ofVermont children under age six [have] all their parents in the labor force.”

Dollars and choice

Sharpe also alluded to reports showing Vermont ranked poorly in getting dollars to students in the poorest school districts versus those in richer districts. “We have districts that spend $20,000 and districts that spend $10,000. It’s hard to argue that you have equity when you have that kind of variation throughout the state,” he said.

Rob Roper, president of Vermont’s Ethan Allen Institute, a free-market policy think tank, is a critic of Act 166. He argues that school choice is a better way of ensuring equity, especially in light of the skyrocketing costs of education inVermont.

“The [pre-K] program is $825 million a year, total cost.” Roper told Watchdog. “Now, $325 million of that is a tax increase, $125 million is existing tax revenues, and the balance is what parents are expected to pay out of pocket.

“This is birth to age 5. It appears like it’s not going to fly; it’s way too expensive, but it sparked some interesting discussions.”

Roper praised Sharp for addressing the problems associated with pre-K and equity in Vermont education.

“The first step is admitting that you have a problem,” Roper said. He added that he doubts Sharpe will reach the conclusion that expanded school choice might play a considerable role in remedying behavior and equity issues being discussed in committee.

Sarah Squirell, executive director of Building Bright Futures, says universal pre-K is worth funding and even expanding. In an op-ed appearing after the November election, Squirell implied that Vermont’s Act 166 pre-K program is a success based on the numbers.

“We know Act 166 has been successful in increasing access to pre-K when we look at the data for partial implementation, which is a good indicator of the direction we’re heading,” she wrote. “The number of eligible 3- and 4-year olds enrolled in publically funded pre-K increased by over 1,000 children from the 2014-15 school year to the 2015-16 school year. Now that full implementation is underway we only expect those numbers to continue growing.”

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