Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children
Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

Last month, Vermont’s Governor Peter Shumlin signed a bill into a law that makes “at least 10 hours a week of high-quality early education available to every 3- and 4-year-old child” in the state, according to a press release from the governor’s office.

The new law closes an opportunity gap: while 87 percent of Vermont communities already offer pre-K, 13 percent do not. As Shumlin said, “this bill ensures that no matter where you live, your 3- or 4 year-old will have access to high-quality early education programs, and arrive at school better prepared to learn.”

Shumlin added, “The children who aren’t ready to learn when they begin elementary school are very likely to challenge our resources throughout their school years and potentially throughout their lives.”

“We know that high-quality pre-kindergarten is far less expensive than remediation, retention, and special education later on.”

The payoff of preschool is striking, especially among children from low-income families: “Vermont children from low-income backgrounds who don’t attend pre-kindergarten have a 30 percent probability of being kindergarten ready, while Vermont students from low-income backgrounds with one or two years of pre-kindergarten have up to a 55 percent probability of being kindergarten ready.”

“There are numerous positive features contained in the law,” NIEER (the National Institute for Early Education Research) explains in its Preschool Matters blog. The law’s strengths include parental selection of qualified providers; greater access through regionally coordinated, mixed-model delivery systems; and financial stability through the state’s education fund.

But NIEER also says that the Vermont law missed the opportunity to improve quality. NIEER adds that while Vermont leads in access, it “sits among the bottom tier of states for policies assuring quality and consistency.”

The Larger Plan for Universal Pre-K

The new law is one step in a larger strategy for improving children’s outcomes: Vermont’s Early Childhood Action Plan.

The action plan is based on a year-long, collaborative effort led by the Governor’s office, the Vermont Agency of Human Services, the Vermont Agency of Education, and early learning advocates.

Among the action plan’s six goals is #3: that “all families have access to high quality opportunities that meet their needs.”

A key action step for achieving this goal is establishing “universal pre-K services in all school districts that provide a minimum of 20 hours a week of service…” School districts would work with qualified private providers who offer full day/full year services “to assure continuity for children and to minimize costs for families.”

The plan also calls for improving the quality of early education and supporting the early education workforce by increasing pay and benefits and creating more training and professional development opportunities.

Vermont also plans to enhance its use of early childhood data by improving and integrating information across several sectors, including early learning, K-3, and health and human services efforts.

The other action plan goals are:

– a healthy start for all children

– having families and communities play a leading role in children’s well-being

– investing state dollars in “prevention and plans for the future success of our children”

– using data and accountability to drive early childhood outcomes, and

– building an early childhood system that is innovative and integrated across sectors to better serve children and families

Economic Benefits of Early Education

As the press release explains: “Parents who work in towns outside their home communities can access pre-kindergarten for their young children closer to their jobs and with more regular hours. No longer will parents have to forego enrolling their children in high-quality early education programs because they can’t transport their child to and from the irregularly scheduled available hours. Now they have flexibility in enrollment, transportation, and wrap-around care.”

In addition: children who succeed in pre-K now are more likely to become productive workers in the future; working parents will feel more confident about their children’s early learning experiences; and Vermont — with its improved and expanded pre-K — should prove more attractive to young, talented workers seeking jobs in a family-friendly state.

“Getting our youngest children off to a good start is the best prevention program we know,” Vermont’s Human Services Secretary Doug Racine said. “Having kids ready for kindergarten pays long-term dividends in school success and reduction in problems later on in childhood.”