Vermonters are getting ready for universal pre-K

ADDISON COUNTY — Parents of very young children and officials at schools around Vermont have an extra wrinkle to consider as they prepare for the 2016-2017 academic year: a state mandate that pre-kindergarten services be offered to eligible students through public schools or private programs.
Act 166, signed into law in 2014, requires all school districts in Vermont to offer 10 hours per week — during the 35 weeks of the academic year — of pre-K education to children ages 3 to 5 who are not in kindergarten.
Supporters of “universal pre-K,” as it is being called, argue that better access to early education will get children off to a better start and give them a better chance at success later in life.
“The research has shown that providing high-quality pre-K services to students gives them better outcomes in the long run,” said Vicki Wells, director of student services for the Addison Central Supervisory Union (ACSU). “The rationale is, ‘Let’s give all of these kids an exceptional start, and hope the outcomes match down the road.’”
Universal pre-K was originally scheduled to debut this fall. But state officials agreed to delay implementation by one year to allow districts to better prepare for the change.
State officials have yet to specify the sum that districts will be asked to budget for each child that qualifies for universal pre-K. The state had prescribed a $3,000-per-child amount for 2015-2016, prior to the launch delay, Wells noted.
The universal pre-K program is voluntary. Households will have to pick up any tuition costs beyond the allowance set by the state. In other words, if the state sets a pre-K allowance of $3,000 and the parents want their child to attend a full-time program that costs $11,000 annually, the parents will have to come up with the additional $8,000.
Parents will be able to use their pre-K allowance to enroll kids at their local public school (if pre-K is offered) or at any public or private pre-K program in Vermont that has been prequalified by the state’s Agency of Education. Those prequalified programs can be based in either schools or in private childcare centers or homes.
Prequalified programs need to hold at least 3 STARS (out of a possible 5 STARS) under Vermont’s quality rating scale; have a licensed early childhood teacher; provide at least 10 hours/week of pre-K curriculum following the Vermont Early Learning Standards (VELS); and follow other guidelines set by the Agency of Education and local supervisory unions.
Supervisory unions under Act 166 can establish “pre-kindergarten regions” that limit, geographically, where parents can use their pre-K tuition allowance. The ACSU has decided to create a pre-kindergarten region that includes its seven member towns: Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge. Middlebury is home to the vast majority of Addison County’s private pre-K programs. There are 12 prequalified private programs in Addison County currently serving 263 children of pre-K age.
“We are in the process now of developing an application for our pre-K region,” Wells said.
Meg Baker, universal pre-K coordinator for Addison County, noted the Addison Northwest and Addison Northeast supervisory unions have not put any geographic restrictions on parents’ pre-K choices. So for example, if a Bristol parent wants to enroll his or her child into a pre-qualified pre-K program in Chittenden County that might be more convenient to his or her workplace, that would be OK and the child’s pre-K allowance would be paid to that program.
Baker, Wells and other Addison County school officials have done a lot of work to lay the foundation for the transition to universal pre-K. That work has included surveys of area pre-K providers and parents of small children. They’ve also developed some numbers on how many providers and eligible children might take advantage of universal pre-K. A lot of that research is contained in the Addison County Universal Pre-K Capacity report (available in PDF form at the end of this article).
Among the interesting facts and figures in the report:
•  Universal pre-K planners believe Addison County could have around 472 children enrolled in pre-K programming next fall. That estimate reflects around 80 percent of the children eligible for that service. But Baker believes participation is more likely to begin in the 72-percent range, with increasing participation during the ensuing two to three years.
“The county will be served in a mix of full?time and part?time programs, both private and school?based. In general, most of these children can be absorbed by existing programs, but parent and provider data indicates a need for additional full?time child care programs that are eligible for prequalification,” the report states. “In some cases, there may be programs that can become prequalified, and in other cases we need to explore other options, including opening new programs.”
•  ACSU pre-K projections indicate an enrollment of 184 children in the fall of 2016. There are currently 101 children served by prequalified private providers and 44 served by school?based programs, for a total of 145 in the district.
“Although ACSU has not historically funded all of the children in the private programs, there may not be a need to increase the number of programs in this region substantially, though budgets will need to increase to fund the 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds in the prequalified programming,” the report states.
The ACSU is home to the majority of large centers that are prequalified in pre-K services, the report notes. Those larger facilities include the Mary Johnson, Otter Creek, and Quarry Hill children’s centers located in Middlebury. It should also be noted that the Mary Johnson and Otter Creek centers often operate with lengthy waitlists “indicating a continued need for prequalified, full?time programming within ACSU,” the report states.
Still, the report concludes that “at this time, it does not appear that ACSU has an unmet need for part?time programming.”
•  Addison Northwest has a projected pre-K enrollment of 122 next fall, with 42 children currently served by private partners and 21 served by school?based programs, for a total of 63.
“Evergreen is ANwSU’s primary prequalified partner program, however ANwSU has few options for prequalified providers offering full?time childcare,” the report states. “It appears based on the parent survey and informal information that many families use home providers, relatives or religious programming for their pre-K children. According to the parent survey, fewer families in ANwSU are looking for full?time childcare than in other supervisory unions. Furthermore, a significant percentage of ANwSU families commute to Chittenden County, and may choose to use providers in that area. In this supervisory union, it may make sense to look at creation of new programming ideally with a flexible full/part?time model and/or to work with existing home?based and religious programs to offer a secular Pre-K program.”
•  Addison Northeast is projected to serve 184 pre-K children. Currently, 124 of these children are served by private providers and 23 are served by school?based programs, for a total of 147.
Addison Northeast is ahead of the game, Baker noted. It is one in a limited number of “early adopters” of public funding for pre-K.
“ANeSU seems to have a healthy balance of prequalified programs that offer part- and full-time care, though many families also use home providers, relatives, or religious programming to meet full?time child care needs for their pre-K children,” the report states. “Furthermore, a significant percentage of ANeSU families commute to Chittenden County, and may choose to use providers in that area. As the pre-K program numbers expand, additional programs may need to be created.”
While universal pre-K planners are getting a handle on the potential demand for services and the availability of program slots at prequalified centers and schools, they acknowledged there are still some tough questions to answer. One of those questions is how the pre-K tuition payments will be funded.
Peter Burrows, superintendent of the ACSU, said he believes funding will be calculated in the following manner:
“The money will not flow to districts from the state, but will be awarded through granting a 0.46 average daily membership per student (to school districts),” he said. “There are mechanics in play to figure this out in the first year, and then those students would be counted in the (school districts’) equalized pupil count number.”
It is a new expense that school districts will have to deal with in a rapidly changing environment for public education in Vermont. The Legislature this past session endorsed Act 46, which offers financial incentives to supervisory unions that agree to establish a single, consolidated K-12 school district that would be governed by a single board. But the law also calls for per-pupil spending caps during a two-year transition toward full implementation of Act 46. The new law calls for districts to be charged a dollar penalty for each dollar they spend above their limit.
School officials said they hope state lawmakers will provide more clarity to funding of the new pre-K mandate during the upcoming 2016 legislative session, which begins in early January.
Another lingering question is how existing pre-K programs could be affected by the new flexibility parents will have in determining where to place their children. Since the tuition allowance will follow the student, parents will be able to transplant their children to pre-K programs of their choice.
In the ACSU, the Salisbury, Bridport and Ripton elementary schools run their own pre-K programs. Universal pre-K could have the effect of drawing down students from such school-based programs, officials noted.
“It is a challenge we will have to look at and figure out,” Wells said.
Jennefer Eaton is principal at Bridport Central School, which has a pre-K curriculum that is currently serving 14 students. She praised Kate Moehringer, a new teacher who is running the program in a fashion that she believes will continue to earn the support of local families.
“I am confident we will not see people leaving (the Bridport pre-K program),” Eaton said. “I hope to see increased enrollment in the program.”
Linda January is executive director of the Otter Creek Child Center (OCCC) in Middlebury. She, too, is closely watching the ongoing preparations for universal pre-K. The OCCC is already prequalified to participate in the program and she does not believe the new mandate will dramatically affect her center’s enrollment.
“I think our enrollment will stay the same,” she said, noting OCCC has reached its capacity of 21 pre-K students. “We don’t really have the capacity to bring in new kids.”
January added, however, that the universal pre-K law will provide tuition assistance to around 10 families who currently must pay full freight.
“It looks like all of our (current) families will qualify,” she said.
But January noted there could be some additional tweaks to universal pre-K before it is rolled out next fall.
“We are encouraging families to keep an ear out,” she said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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