Is there room for more kids as universal preschool takes effect?

After a year of phone calls, waitlists and stretched patience, Katie Howe has just found a preschool opening for her 3-year-old son.
“It has been very difficult,” said Howe, a mother of two and an outreach worker at the Addison County Parent Child Center.
Howe put her son on five waitlists for preschools in Addison and Chittenden counties. For now, Howe, a Shelburne resident, has settled for a spot at a preschool in Chittenden County, although a preschool in Addison County would have been more convenient for her and nearly half the cost. Though her daughter is just eight months old, Howe says she is going to start looking for a preschool spot for her now.
Based on her observations working at the Parent Child Center, Howe says this experience is not uncommon for many local families.
“There’s always some families who don’t get in to certainly their first or second choice and then you’re kind of scrambling to find a place,” she said in a recent interview.
“It’s that scary piece of ‘I’m being offered a spot and if I don’t take it, am I going to get another opportunity,’” explained Marcie Tierney, mother of three and pre-K educator at Mary Johnson Children’s Center. “Pre-K can be very competitive. So I’ve learned as a pre-K teacher and a parent that if you are offered a spot, it is important that you take it.”
The world of pre-K is undergoing dramatic changes right now, though. Act 166, Vermont’s heralded “universal pre-K law,” comes into effect this September, giving parents across the state a much-needed rebate on pre-K costs.
The law is part of a culture shift: In 1950, women were only 34 percent of the work force; in 2000, they made up 60 percent of it. And modern women aren’t just doing part-time jobs: Today 66.5% of women work more than 40 hours a week.
These changes are receiving growing recognition across the country, marked by initiatives aimed at improving the affordability and quality of early childhood education. Both Democratic presidential candidates have made early childhood education a part of their platform: Hillary Clinton has proposed a “Respect and Increased Salaried for Early Childhood Educators” initiative and Sen. Bernie Sanders wants to expand his 2011 Foundations for Success Act, which provides grants to states to improve their early childhood education programs.
Passed by Gov. Peter Shumlin in 2014, Act 166 provides funding for 10 free hours per week of preschool for children ages 3 to 5 who opt into state-approved programs and are not in kindergarten. Parents who opt in will snag a savings of $3,092 per year per child in preschool tuition. At many local preschools, this savings is about a third of the cost of annual preschool tuition — representing an annual expense of about $9,000 or more per year per child.
For many Vermont families, this savings will dramatically help their finances. According to Building Bright Futures, families with two parents and two children in Vermont typically spend between 28 and 40 percent of their household income on childcare.
SILAS GORTON, LEFT, Noah Gorton and Sophie Glover enjoy time spent with at Mountain Road Preschool. Photo by Emilie Munson
“Day care costs were definitely a big factor in our decision not to have more kids,” said Sarah Warner, mother of two children and a teacher at Vergennes Elementary School. Although she and her husband both work, Act 166 will help alleviate the financial strain of paying for preschool. “This will make a significant financial difference for our family. We’ll be able to do some home repairs. We’re thinking of building a new house.”
While excitement about the new increased affordability of pre-K is widespread, some parents and preschool coordinators are also wondering how the law, which is predicted to increase demand for preschool, will affect parents who are already struggling to find preschool openings for their children. 
The picture isn’t clear. 
According to a capacity report prepared by Addison County Universal Pre-K Coordinator Meg Baker, as many as 472 children are anticipated to enroll in preschool in Addison County next year. (A copy of the full report, and the Addison Independent’s coverage of its release this past fall, can be found online at addisonindependent.com or at http://bit.ly/1VgT9jr).
The report paints a complicated picture: the demand for preschool may increase next year, but it is hard to know by how much. And whether Addison County is ready to meet a larger demand is an equally complex question. Many factors, like full-time versus part-time care and the type of program families opt for, will play a role in the availability of open preschool spots.
“Although ACSU (Addison Central Supervisory Union) 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.
“(It) is still a really, really big question whether we have capacity to serve all of the kids,” said Baker. “It’s hard to answer that question because we don’t know how many families need full-time child care options versus how many want just a 10-hour-per-week-free program. We don’t know how many families don’t want any pre-K services at all.”
Act 166 actually anticipated that Vermont might struggle to meet a higher demand for preschool. The law specifically states that if capacity issues are identified within a given school district, the district should partner with their regional Building Bright Futures council to try to address that need. At this point, the ACSU has not decided to partner with BBF.
“We aren’t sure yet what the capacity issues will be at local centers as we don’t know what the demand will be for 10 hours a week and who will take part,” wrote Superintendent Peter Burrows in an email. “Most families need full time and we believe that many cannot afford to take part in pre-K next year.”
Since this report was released in October, Baker has been working hard to help more preschools become approved by the state to receive universal pre-K funding.
“One of the things we want to be able to do is to build capacity to make sure that every child that wants a (publicly funded) pre-K opportunity can get one,” said Baker.
In order to be approved, a preschool or childcare center must meet five qualifications. They must:
•  Have a curriculum aligned with Vermont Early Learning Standards (VELS),
•  Have at least three STARS in Vermont’s quality recognition program with plans to move to 4 or 5 STARS,
•  Have a Teaching Strategies Gold Assessment system to evaluate children’s development,
•  Have a teacher certified in Vermont early childhood education or early childhood special education, and
•  be a secular program, because Vermont does not give public funding to religious education programs.
As long as they meet these criteria, prequalified programs may be private early childcare centers, home-based programs or public school programs. They may be either part- or full-time.
In Addison County, 19 preschools have been preapproved by the state to receive Act 166 funding for next year. These preschools are located in Middlebury, Bristol, Addison, Vergennes, New Haven, Lincoln and Starksboro. (See the sidebar for an up-to-date list of the currently approved programs in the Addison County region.)
Many preschools in Addison County have already been meeting these standards for years, so for them the online approval process to receive universal pre-K funding was a breeze.
Other preschools in the area have had to make significant changes to rise to the new standards.  For many of these programs, the Teaching Strategies Gold Assessment system — which requires a small subscription fee for each child enrolled and staff time to conduct and record their observations — was a new and substantial addition to their budgets.
“Programs that have been coming on board have actually been working toward this,” said Melissa Riegel-Garrett, program coordinator at the Vermont Agency of Education. “They have probably gotten some pressure from families. So maybe they have been working to move their quality up to that three star or four star range or have been working to hire a licensed teacher.”
The biggest sticking point for many preschools was the required Vermont Early Education certified teacher. Until this year, numerous preschools have operated with a teacher certified in elementary education or who are uncertified but have years of experience. Becoming certified in early education or hiring a new certified teacher is a major hurdle for these preschools providers.
“We are looking at the possibility of hiring a contracted teacher who could go to some of the programs that meet all of the other qualifications standards but don’t have that (certified early childhood education) teacher on site,” said Baker. “We have four of five programs right now that are interested in contracting a teacher for that position.”
If a licensed early childhood education teacher can be contracted to these programs part-time, approximately 40 more children would have the opportunity to attend preschool in Addison County and receive universal pre-K funding for it.
“At this moment, I anticipate at least four more prequalified programs by fall in addition to the programs that are already prequalified and am highly optimistic about pre-K capacity,” said Baker in an email.
Preschool educators have mixed reports about how Act 166 is affecting demand for their programs. For some educators, like Cookie Cummings, their phones have been ringing off the hook.
Cummings, director of Mountain Road Preschool, a home-based program in Addison, reports that her waitlist has increased three-fold since last year.
“I’ve always had a waitlist,” said Cummings. “I’ve noticed since Act 166 has come into play that I’m getting more and more calls from those families who are just looking for two days (of child care).”
Cummings reports that many of her calls are coming from families with a stay-at-home mom who are interested in the socialization benefits of preschool for their child now that Act 166 makes programs more affordable. 
“Our waitlist has also increased,” said Linda January, director of Otter Creek Child Center in Middlebury. “Since January, we’ve had eight or so calls from preschool people about being added to our waitlist, which usually isn’t that typical. We are seeing an increased interest in pre-K spots.”
Co-director of the Addison County Parent Child Center Donna Bailey says that waitlists are always part of the equation.
“It’s always a struggle,” said Bailey. “We have children that we want to transition out of our (child care) program into preschools, and there isn’t enough room for all of them.”
In contrast, other preschool educators and coordinators have seen no change in demand for their programs and are not concerned about capacity.
“Regarding my observations about demand for preschool spots this year as compared to previous years, to date we have seen little difference,” said Bethany Hill, an early childhood education coordinator for the ACSU. “We typically receive most of our requests in the summer.”
Mary Johnson Childcare Services Referral Specialist Ginny Sinclair reports that 75 percent of the calls she receives from parents are seeking childcare for children under three years of age, not from parents looking for pre-K programs.
“By the time a child is three, people have pretty much settled out where they want the child to be,” said Sinclair. “(They) have a space there or are on waiting lists.”
She attributes pre-K educators’ long waitlists to the fact that families put themselves on several lists simultaneously, meaning the majority of the names on each preschool’s waitlist are the same. Instead, the area where Sinclair does identify an unmet demand is infant childcare.
“There are only three centers in Middlebury that care for infants and one in Bristol,” said Sinclair. “There aren’t nearly as many infant spaces as there are pre-K spaces.”
“It’s actually a greater crisis from birth to three than to three to five because ratios have to be lower so it costs more,” confirmed Bailey.
According to a report by the Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children, almost half of Vermont’s infants and toddlers likely to need care do not have access to a state-licensed or state-registered day care program. Nearly 80 percent don’t have access to high-quality care, and in some parts of the state that number is as high as 98 percent.
For parents struggling to find a spot for their child in a universal pre-K approved program, there are options.
Parents of these children may bring their kids to other counties to find universal pre-K programs. For example, a child from Middlebury may attend preschool in Addison County, Chittenden County or Rutland County and still receive funding from Addison Central Supervisory Union (ACSU) as long as they are attending a pre-qualified preschool. Several additional prequalified programs exist in border towns such as Charlotte and Hinesburg.
It is the goal of Baker and other school officials that no child should have to forgo the universal preschool funding out of a lack of capacity.
Baker has confidence that these capacity questions can be sorted out, and the transition to universal pre-K will go smoothly throughout Addison County. Addison Northeast Supervisory Union (ANeSU), an “early adopter,” implemented Act 166 in September 2015, and preschool providers there have reported few issues.
Baker is also excited about the improvements she believes Act 166 will bring to Vermont’s early childhood education situation in the future. Only three other states — Florida, Oklahoma and West Virginia — have passed equivalent legislation.
“The interesting thing about Vermont is (Act 166) includes 3-year-olds,” added Dana Anderson, Addison regional coordinator for Building Bright Futures, an early childhood education nonprofit. No other state in the nation includes 3-year-olds in its preschool funding.
Although Act 166 is a funding-focused law, in practice it could lead to a lot of educational reform. Baker identifies three major long-term benefits of Act 166:
•  It increases access to early childhood education,
•  It pushes for more higher-quality preschool options, and
•  It increases partnerships between preschools and school districts. 
These benefits could have lasting impacts well into children’s futures. “(Act 166 will have) an impact on a whole generation of children that will now have the opportunity to benefit from pre-kindergarten education experiences,” said Melissa Riegel-Garrett, program coordinator at the Vermont Agency of Education. “We truly believe these kind of experiences are really good for all kids. And we certainly have a lot of information suggesting that for children who come from more challenging backgrounds or situations, it can really help mitigate things like the achievement gap.”
“Investments in early childhood education are a solid investment in children’s futures, as has been repeatedly demonstrated through research on early brain development and the economic impacts on communities that make this investment,” added Meg Baker, Addison County’s universal pre-K coordinator.
Overall, preschool educators across the state believe Act 166 is a positive step toward improving the state of early childhood education in Vermont.
“The data doesn’t support that 10 hours is the right dosage of pre-K for kids and really it should be more than that,” explained Anderson. “This is a great starting point, and what I hope we see is that the dosage will be a full school week or options for more weeks (in the future).”
“I see Act 166 as being part of a progression,” said Riegel-Garrett. “We’ve been moving forward as a state and we’re at a pivotal place where early childhood education is being recognized as playing an important role in outcomes for kids and future success. It’s part of a history that we have in Vermont of wanting to right by our youngest citizens.”
Katie Howe, the Shelburne mom who did finally find a pre-K slot for her 3-year-old son, has a different take: “I almost feel like this is part B, but we forgot part A. I feel like the creation of new, high quality, affordable childcare is Part A and Part B is helping families to afford that childcare. But I think Act 166 is a great start and I would not want to see it go away.”

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