Whether they know it or not, future generations of Vermont’s preschoolers are much better off this week. Last week Gov. Peter Shumlin signed H. 270- An Act Relating to Providing Access to Publicly Funded Prekindergarten Education to guarantee every 3- and 4-year-old living in the Green Mountain State voluntary access to state-funded pre-K. In so doing, Vermont joins a handful of states (FL, GA, IL, NY, OK, WV) and the District of Columbia who have made similar commitments, at least on paper.
Building upon Act 62 (2007) which permitted school districts to provide publicly funded pre-K for age-eligible children to attend high quality programs either through a public school or qualified private provider, the new law requires all school districts to either provide or pay for at least 10 hours/week of prekindergarten education for 35 weeks/year for all 3-, 4- and 5-year old children who are not enrolled in kindergarten in their district in a “pre-qualified program.” For a state already ranked fourth nationally for 4-year-olds and second for 3-year-olds attended state-funded pre-K, things got even better.
There are numerous positive features contained in the law: parental selection of qualified providers; geographic portability for families; greater access through regionally coordinated, mixed-model delivery systems; financial stability through the state’s education fund; uniform data collection for planning, program improvement, and accountability, including data on child progress to “help individualize instruction and improve program practice;” and joint monitoring by the Agencies of Education and Human Services. Most important, all means all for Vermont’s young children when it comes to early learning opportunity.
There is a downside to the new law, however. It missed an opportunity to improve quality.
Although Vermont is a perennial leader for access in NIEER’s State of Preschool Annual Yearbook, it also sits among the bottom tier of states for policies assuring quality and consistency. In 2012-2013, the level of quality remained unchanged as Vermont’s two early education programs continued to meet only four of NIEER’s 10 quality standard benchmarks. Only three states (CA, FL, TX) meet fewer benchmarks.
State leaders failed to resolve the issue quality with the passage of H. 270, and, as a result, children will not necessarily benefit from direct interactions with qualified educators in all settings. It let stand an Act 62 provision permitting vaguely defined “regular, active supervision and training” from a licensed teacher for unqualified educators, and allowing a loophole requiring a program to employ a qualified teacher who may have no direct teaching responsibilities. The low dosage, of 10 hours per week, remains inadequate to improve Vermont’s static kindergarten readiness figures, particularly for those more disadvantaged children, and parents may be required to pay additional fees to private providers to receive even the minimum 10 hours. Reimbursement for schools and participating providers remains well below the kindergarten rate, which also requires only 10 hours per week to generate full funding (the majority of districts provide FDK, however). Further, there is an apparent lack of consistent or complimentary curriculum models even within a district. The act takes one important step in the right direction by requiring state agencies to develop rules (they cannot take effect until 2016 at the earliest); however, the golden opportunity to establish quality on equal footing with access was lost, at best “kicked down the road,” with the Governor’s signing.
Ascribing to the notion that one should not let perfect be the enemy of good, I still tip my hat to Vermont for its bold commitment to becoming a universal pre-K state. Once they figure out how to insert “high-quality” between the words “universal” and “pre-K” with the resources to make it happen, the state will be atop everyone’s list.
–Jim Squires, NIEER Senior Research Fellow. Squires was the early childhood programs coordinator at the Vermont Department of Education, and was involved with development and passage of Vermont’s Act 62, an Act Relating to Prekindergarten Education.