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Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Vt. House Backs Pre-School Program As Funding Plummets

VPR/Kirk Carapezza

As public funding for pre-kindergarten plummets nationwide, Vermont lawmakers are debating whether to boost state spending on early childhood education.

On Tuesday, the Vermont House advanced a bill that would extend access to pre-kindergarten. Supporters say the goal is to make it universal across the state, but opponents wonder how – and who – will pay for it.

For weeks, it was unclear whether supporters had the votes needed to move the bill forward. Day after day, the floor debate had been pushed back. But when pre-school expansion finally came up on the calendar, it was approved by a two-to-one margin, 97-43.

Rep. Sarah Buxton, D-Tunbridge, a lead sponsor of the bill, said expanding access to pre-kindergarten would decrease cost and increase academic achievement.

“Our future workforce depends on it,” Buxton said. “We need a high-quality education system and it begins early on as the brain is developing.”

Under current law, towns are not required to provide pre-school, but the state would like to encourage all Vermont towns and school districts to do so. The bill proposes a plan that would have the state pay a portion of the cost if a town agrees to offer at least ten hours per week of early childhood education for 35 weeks.

Under the bill, Buxton says, school districts would still decide whether to operate a pre-school education program, although she wishes it were required.

“We almost always see a lag between what science points us to be the best behavior and what socially we can do at the state level to support those findings,” Buxton explained.

Right now, the Agency of Education says 84 percent of Vermont towns pay for some kind of early childhood education. Only 38 percent of three- to five-year-olds, though, are enrolled in a pre-school program.

The debate in Vermont comes as public funding for preschool programs in America continues to dry up. A new report out this week shows funding for preschool fell last year by some $500 million. Enrollment dropped, and many programs saw a drop in quality.

Credit VPR/Kirk Carapezza
Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, says the state is not getting its money's worth for education.

Supporters of the Vermont bill say expanding preschool would save money on special education, remedial classes and retention efforts later on in children’s lives. Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, agrees but she sees the measure before the House as an unfunded mandate.

“The state has a history of putting programs into the education fund that are paid for mostly by the local education property taxes and it has a history of shorting the general contribution to the education fund,” Browning said.

Instead, Browning suggests, the state should pick up any increased spending on early childhood education by shifting its spending priorities. She worries the cost of the program could skyrocket.

“This program may grow to $40 million if 100 percent of kids are in it, and that’s 4 cents on the property tax rate,” Browning said. “I want people to understand that in passing this bill they’re diminishing local control and they are probably contributing or sanctioning the increase in cost going forward.”

Browning says the state is not getting its money’s worth for education.

If the bill passes, the Agency of Education – rather than local school boards – would decide whether towns should begin programs based on the number of three-to five-year-olds living in the district.