Early education programs spark debate

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(Host) There’s a provision in the new state budget that encourages school districts to collaborate with local day care providers to offer early education programs.

Backers of the plan say these programs offer tremendous benefits for many younger students, but critics believe it could lead to a state takeover of preschool programs.

We have two reports on this issue – an examination of the debate over this plan at the Statehouse, and a look at how the policy affects local day care providers.

First, VPR’s Bob Kinzel:

(Kinzel) Senate Education Chairman Don Collins says he’s a little surprised by recent criticisms of the early education plan.

Collins says the proposal merely reaffirms a practice that’s been going on for nearly twenty years in Vermont that’s encouraging school districts to enter into agreements with local daycare centers to provide ten hours of preschool education programs for three and four-year-olds.

Roughly one hundred school districts have set up these collaborations and approximately 2,700 young children participate in these programs.

The school districts receive financial assistance from the State Education Fund based on the number of children enrolled in these programs.

Collins says the new provision essentially is a continuation of the status quo.

(Collins) “So for the people out there who say we’re going to break the bank financially or we’re going to close down child care centers – ” no.” We’re only saying this is what’s been going on I would say close to a decade and in some cases longer. But it’s pretty prevalent in most counties in Vermont.”

(Kinzel) Libby Sternberg, who’s the editor of the Vermont Education Report, is worried that the proposal gives school districts too much control in selecting which day care centers will be part of the program.

She notes that providers will have to be accredited by the state and she’s concerned that if the program expands it will become a drain on the State Education Fund – a move she says could result in higher statewide property taxes.

(Sternberg) “We have to ask ourselves should we really be asking say, the day laborer in the Northeast Kingdom, to do be subsidizing free early education for the lawyer’s child in Chittenden County. In other words the universal aspect of it – that it’s universal preschool for rich and poor alike.”

Education Commissioner Richard Cate says he believes early education programs provide a valuable service and he doesn’t think the new provision will hurt existing day care providers.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

Note: Look for Part 2 of our early education report by Susan Keese.

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