Guest editorial: Educating a skilled Vt. work force starts early

Some call the process glorified babysitting. And expensive. Some say it is the only means by which the state can break the cycle of poverty that traps low-income students in a closed look, low-wage environment.
The issue is universal pre-K education that, beginning next year, will be required in Vermont’s schools. According to the state department of education, over a third of our schools this fall will be ready to offer services to the three- to five-year-olds targets by the legislation signed into law more than a year ago.
The critics’ cries are understandable. The idea of sending three-year-olds to school seems precipitous. They just got out of diapers and learning fractions seems a stretch. And it is another expense on top of what we already have.
If that were as deep as the thinking went, the effort might be short-lived.
It’s not. The advantages of early education are becoming more evident and the research more conclusive. Young minds respond to environments that are stimulating and safe. It raises educational expectations, both at the school level and with parents.
It used to be that this debate was one between groups who battled over whether academics could really prove that early education efforts made a long-term difference in how students performed. And there were those who argued about the need to keep children home with their parents.
Those arguments still exist, but they have faded in relevance. It’s not just about how well students perform on standardized tests or about parental roles. It’s also about addressing the inequality in education, and how poverty plays a role in that inequality. It’s about troubling levels of poor parenting and opiate abuse on a scale we’ve never experienced.
Universal pre-K education is not just about warming up the students’ brain cells, it’s about providing a safe environment for these children. It’s about providing adequate nutrition. It’s about giving them a sense of hope.
In Vermont the percentage of children at risk is increasing, and if you think it’s expensive to provide them with a safer, more productive environment, it’s far more expensive to pay for them on the social services end of the taxpayer rainbow.
Bear in mind that as a state we have a stagnant to declining population. We have lost 23,000 students since 1997 and we could lose a similar amount between now and 2030.
We have the country’s lowest fertility rate and the better educated we are, and the more money we make, the fewer children we have, which, according to the census, means the less educated are having more of the children. Nationally, the birth rate for families making less than $10,000 a year is 98.3 births per 1,000 women. The birth rate for families with incomes exceeding $75,000 is 54.8.
One doesn’t have to read between the lines to see the challenge. If tomorrow’s workforce will require far fewer unskilled laborers than we have today, their options are limited.
And so are ours.
We have to do better with what we have.
It doesn’t have to be so bleak. David Finney, past president of Champlain College, used to advise all those who would listen that the way to get the world to beat a path to Vermont’s door is the provide universal education to children beginning at age two.
That’s our direction. If we are to build upon our educational reputation, this is our net step. Not only is it an opportunity — in all senses of the word — it’s an obligation. We have an estimated 40-50 percent of Vermont’s children not prepared to enter kindergarten.
As was noted, we have poverty and opiate addiction issues that have become more prevalent. There is also an affordability issue with our childcare system. A good swath of the Vermont population can’t afford high-quality childcare.
What do they do?
The only thing they can do — pay less and get less.
The result is a kindergarten class where about half the students are adequately prepared and the other half not. Research shows that if this gap remains through the fourth grade that the likelihood of it being closed is almost nil.
Vermont’s universal pre-K program targets that vulnerable population. When it’s fully implemented, all schools will be required to offer 35 weeks per year of educational programming, with a minimum of 10 hours per week.
But the research is also showing that universal pre-K draws in higher economic groups, and for good reason: Parents see it for what it is — an opportunity to improve their child’s educational prospects.
Still unconvinced?
There is an interesting historical parallel to the universal pre-K discussion under way: We had this same “do we really need it, can we afford it” debate in the early 1980s when the idea of kindergarten was proposed. Can anyone imagine our schools without kindergarten? It would be a step backward, right?
— Emerson Lynn, St. Albans Messenger

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