For over a decade we have been following the goal of the VTNEA and their allies in Montpelier to expand the public school system by two years to include three and four-year-olds. The next steps in this very expensive long-term play are underway right now.
First, a brief history of how we got to where we are today. In 2006, the legislature passed Act 62, which made "Universal Pre-K" programs for three and four-year-olds eligible to draw down education fund dollars. This was sold as a voluntary program for school districts, and public schools were encourage to partner with "qualified" private childcare businesses — "if convenient" — to provide 10 hours of "quality" childcare per week.
In 2013, the legislature reneged on the voluntary arrangement and mandated that all school district provide access to those 10 hours of pre-k whether they wanted to or not (Act 166). And, by this time, more public schools were finding fewer "qualified" private partnerships and were, for convenience sake, moving more programs into their own buildings. A trend that continues.
In 2014 Vermont got a $33 million federal grant (Hooray, free money!) to support full day, 40 hr. per week, pre-k programs for four-year-olds. A Vermont Digger article notes that one such program "includes meals, transportation and access to art, music, gym and library." Sounds like whole other grade of school, doesn't it? The grant pays for everything except the 10 hours per week Vermonters are mandated to cover under our own law.
But here's the catch the federal money goes away after four years. So, Vermont property taxpayers, get out your wallets! The $33 million grant (average $8.25 million per year) only covers pilot programs in eight supervisory unions and a half a dozen or so individual school districts. That's about $1 million per supervisory union per year. There are currently 62 supervisory unions in Vermont. Do the math!
Technically, the way Vermonters would take over responsibility for this cost would be to increase the Average Daily Membership weight of pre-K students from .46 to 1.0 on the education fund — a more that doubling overnight. Statewide property taxpayers would be on the hook for a very big bill. And then, of course, you can double that price again when they inevitably move onto the next phase of the plan, adding three-year-olds into the mix.
The propaganda campaign trashing the hundreds of small, independent childcare providers, mostly run by women, who currently serve tens of thousands of Vermont families has already begun. Concurrently, there has been a steady stream of op-eds, newspaper articles and public forums hyping the desperate need for "high quality" childcare – which is conveniently defined as that only run or regulated by the public school bureaucracy.
Neither argument is justified. If it were, then why since 2007 when "universal" publicly funded "high quality" pre-k programs have become increasingly available, and small independent providers have been increasingly squeezed out, have the fourth grade standardized test scores of the kids matriculating through this system dropped every year, year after year? This is a question we certainly deserve a solid answer to before spending tens to a hundred million dollars on programs that appear to be doing more harm to kids than good.
But, don't expect such due diligence. The current legislature has no interest in asking such questions let alone getting at the answers. They continue to plow ahead, despite voluminous lip service to the notion that they really, truly are doing all they can to control rising property taxes.
In fact, the Speaker of the House, Shap Smith (D-Morristown), recently asked the State Board of Education to investigate and recommend fixes to the Vermont' universal pre-k law. According to a VT Digger article:
The main concerns are that some working and impoverished families can't take advantage of the vouchers the state provides for 10 hours a week of pre-kindergarten for every child, because they can't pay for the rest of the week.
Families may also lack transportation to get their children to a center or pick them up after the voucher hours and move them to day care for the rest of the workday.
Yup. Ten hours a week of property taxpayer funded pre-k is not enough. We need forty hours a week of property taxpayer funded pre-k just to make it "fair." Even a preschooler can see exactly where this is going. And where the money's going to come from. You!
Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute. He lives in Stowe.