Universal Pre-kindergarten came to life in 2014 to provide access to high-quality publicly funded education to Vermont’s Pre-K children as young as 3. Using a mixed delivery model, parents could enroll their children in a local school program; or use a voucher to attend a private program or a public program outside the district. After the first three years, enrollment reached 8,885 children and 74% of the kindergarteners had attended a publicly funded program. While this opened opportunity for many children, it has not been without growing pains.
Confusion and redundancy emerged resulting from oversight by both the Agency of Education and the Agency of Human Services. A lack of consistency in the voucher program resulted in inefficient, complex and burdensome accounting and contracting. Because the program provided only 10 hours per week during the school year, working families were often challenged to coordinate wraparound childcare or could not make reasonable transportation arrangements. Private providers struggled to find certified teachers or could not retain them due to superior wages and benefit offerings in public programs. In some ways, the design of Universal Pre-K pitted advocates for public and private programs against each other.
In 2018, talks toward solution broke down and it was clear everyone needed a break. An outside evaluation was ordered. As a good Vermont legislator, I also got in my car and visited 28 public and private programs around the state as far south as Bennington and Brattleboro and as far north as Canaan and Derby. Our own Shelburne Representative Jessica Brumsted, who serves on the House Human Services Committee, joined me for many of these.
The report and our onsite visits indicated that Universal Pre-K is working and valuable. As is frequently the case, leadership was often central to whether a program was working well or struggling. It was also clear that different regions were beginning to find solutions that might be able to be reproduced in others. Some schools with high poverty used local and federal funds to provide full day Pre-K programs. Some districts worked with private providers to provide wraparound childcare or offer transportation to local centers. One district repurposed an elementary school to house a public Pre-K program with a private childcare program in one easy location. Some school district leaders created professional learning communities with private providers, sharing resources and coaching.
The House Education Committee, on which I serve as chair, is now looking at these successes and challenges. Redundant joint oversight can likely be sorted out, while ensuring that the essential health, safety and educational standards are present in both public and private programs. Accounting and contracting solutions are coming forward and these can be standardized. Restrictions in the law that make it difficult for public programs to expand can be removed. As Castleton University works to build Pre-K and childcare workforce, Vermont can work to set high standards for instruction and perhaps provide ramps for programs that need to stay open but simply need more time and support.
Once upon a time, school districts were not required to offer kindergarten. Perhaps the future design of education will see the need for quality education starting earlier and earlier. It is important that these questions continue to be revisited. Emerging brain research, school readiness, social-emotional learning, and the needs of working families suggest to us it is incumbent upon us to do so.
Please join Representative Brumsted and me at the Pierson Library, Saturday Feb. 1 and 15, from 9-10 am for a discussion of issues important to you.