Every three, four, and five-year-old in Vermont will be eligible for state-subsidized preschool, under new legislation that Governor Shumlin has promised to sign into law. Many school districts already offer early education programs, but they vary widely in structure and quality. So a lot of details have to be worked out as the state sews together what is now a patchwork of programs.
Child advocates lobbied hard for the law, which also drew opposition from lawmakers who called it an “unfunded mandate.” It will require all Vermont school districts to provide 10 hours of pre-kindergarten each week, or arrange with a private provider to do the job. Currently more than 80 percent of the districts already have such programs. As of July 2015, the rest will need to make pre-kindergarten available statewide.
“This was a nail biter and I am so excited about Vermont’s future,” said Julie Coffey. She’s Executive Director of Building Bright Futures, a non-profit group that works with the state to rate both private and public early education programs, using a system of stars. The stars measure such things as teacher training and compliance with state regulations. Coffey says any program that has earned or is in the process of earning more than 3 stars would qualify for the new state pre-K funding. But if there is no qualified private provider to partner with, a public school will need to create its own pre-kindergarten.
“Our job is to work with our partners all over the state in increasing the number of high quality providers out there - and we know they’re out there,” Coffey said.
Coffey says a new $37 million federal grant will help train many of those teachers and build those bridges between private and public programs. The state will cover the costs of a minimum ten hours per week, but for many working parents, that’s not enough time for preschool. Vermont’s Secretary of Education, Rebecca Holcombe says research shows the benefits of more time in the classroom, and districts that want to offer more half or full-day pre-kindergarten will have to cover that extra cost. Still, Holcombe alls the legislation “a great step forward.”
“Particularly students who are living in poverty, if they have access to high quality preschool we know it makes a high difference in their preparedness for school,” Holcombe said. “And we think that students who start off prepared and confident and ready to learn are just at a better advantage the whole way through our system. So we are thrilled about that,” Holcombe said.
But even the bill’s strongest supporters say that it’s just the beginning of an effort to build a system that offers equal access and quality throughout the state. Over the next eighteen months, superintendents and school boards throughout Vermont will have to figure out how much preschool to offer, where, how, and at what cost.
According to Secretary Holcombe, Vermont is spending about $16.2 million to educate about 40% of eligible students in PK. "If enrollments grow about 6% a year until 60% of eligible children are enrolled-- a best case estimate based on other states-- then we expect to be spending about $26 million in 2021, which is about $9.8 million more annually than we spent in 2012," she said.