Op/Ed

Ways of seeing: Vermont needs pre-school parity

This is part two of four win-win solutions to the current challenges facing our school districts and small rural towns. It is called Pre-School Parity and outlines a simple approach to significant transformation.
School districts have begun inviting innovative ideas from the community, we are beginning to see light at the end of the COVID tunnel, legislation related to education reform has been introduced, and the shifting Federal landscape means these four significant changes could be implemented this year:
•  Remove the burden of health care from employers (ideas presented in the last column).
•  Permit and encourage Pre-School Parity.
•  Assure nurturing care from pregnancy through pre-school.
•  Incentivize towns and school districts to work together.
In this column I propose what might be the simplest change to bring about: permitting and encouraging Pre-School Parity.
What is Pre-School Parity? 
•  Respecting children ages 3-5 with the same opportunities as children and youth ages 5-18.
•  Full school day, full school year service (currently universal Pre-K is only 10 hours a week for 35 weeks).
•  Respecting parents with the same cost (free) that they are charged for the education of older children. Right now, many families pay more than 30% of their income for high-quality early care and learning services.
•  Respecting professionals with comparable education and experience by providing the same salary and benefits. Right now, early care and learning professionals working in pre-approved private settings earn 30-40% less than those working in the K-12 system.
•  Respecting all children and families, especially those from marginalized communities.
What is the value of a high quality pre-school education?
Children are more likely to:
•  Do well in school.
•  Need fewer remedial services such as special education or behavioral interventions.
•  Read at grade level by age 8.
•  Complete high school.
•  Successfully go on to college or a career.
•  Make better choices related to substance use, premature sexual activity, or criminal activity.
Vermont was far ahead of the nation when we first recognized the value of pre-school in promoting educational success. The original opening was a simple permissive clause added to Act 60 (the landmark legislation that changed the way education was funded in Vermont).
We were also far ahead of the nation by recognizing the value of strong public/private partnerships. This allowed the 10 hours of pre-school to take place in the context of high-quality childcare.
For parents, universal Pre-K meant a reduction in the tuition charged for high quality care, the convenience of not having to transport children from one setting to another during the working day, and the joy of feeling welcomed in their child’s learning program.
For schools, it meant being able to provide a great pre-school experience for children in their district without having to set up a new program or hire any additional staff.
For children, it meant continuing to thrive in familiar settings.
The process was straightforward: school districts were allowed to bill the Agency of Education for children enrolled in pre-K program. The district passed some portion of the funding along to the pre-approved private providers. The private providers, in turn, were able to slightly raise salaries, thus increasing the likelihood of retaining great staff.
There have been challenges: Not all communities or school districts participated, the lottery system to award pre-K opportunities was not equitable, there were vast statewide discrepancies and 10 hours a week, during the school year, was only 10 hours a week, hardly meeting the needs of working parents.  As the years went by, legislation, some good and some with unintended negative effects, has been enacted to fix some of the problems.
We are on the cusp of being able to make a huge and simple systemic change. The large influx of federal funds to address issues created by COVID 19, the proposed federal legislation for universal pre-school, the community awareness of the need to fix the fragile childcare system, and growing interest in transforming our existing public education system, all come together to suggest Pre-School Parity as a huge opportunity.
It’s not a magic wand, but as close as we might come to something that could be accomplished with a simple stroke of the pen: Add permission language to allow towns and school districts to provide pre-school parity for all children ages 3-5 in the district whose families would like them to participate. 
For parents, having pre-school that matches the regular K-12 hours and schedules will be a huge blessing. The tuition saving will allow them to “round out” and pay for any additional hours or days of care needed. This will mesh perfectly with the increases in the Child Care Financial Assistance program being proposed in H.171. It will also fit perfectly with the summer learning programs being proposed by Gov. Scott.
For private childcare providers, it will provide salaries and benefits comparable with the K-12 system, thus allowing skilled professionals to stay in the field where they have such a strong positive influence on children’s lives.
For schools, it will promote the transformative partnerships being proposed in the community school legislation and hopefully allow many of our smaller rural schools to stay open providing elementary education as well as expanded services for town residents.
For our economy: keeping our village centers vital, strengthening the childcare infrastructure, supporting the current workforce, and developing the workforce of the future.
And for children, hopefully, they won’t recognize any shift: They will still be with the peers and teachers they love.
All this from a simple stroke of the pen (and some hard work to get the opportunity right).

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