MONTPELIER >> With its concerns about possible inequities in the state's new universal pre-kindergarten program somewhat allayed, the State Board of Education has decided it's too soon to consider making changes.
The board spent half a day of its annual retreat this week focused on how universal pre-kindergarten has played out in communities that moved forward as early adopters of Act 166. Afterward, the board decided not to create a special committee to further investigate the issue.
"What we decided is a better approach," said Chairman Stephan Morse. He said the morning presentations offered a lot of information and relieved board members' concerns over some of the issues they had been told about previously.
During the legislative session, lawmakers and the board heard assertions that the universal pre-K law is exacerbating inequality for low-income families because they aren't as able to make use of it as wealthier families. Often this has to do with access in more rural areas, the need for more hours of care than the program subsidizes, and transportation issues.
Some lawmakers asked the board to come back with recommendations and even language for legislation to correct the course of implementation. The board had discussed at its May meeting creating a committee to do that.
Act 166 offers parents vouchers for 10 hours a week of pre-kindergarten at public or private centers for 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds not yet in kindergarten. An Agency of Education analysis of this past year's "soft" implementation found that 1,079 more children enrolled in 2015-2016 but the majority were from white middle-class families.
"In this first pre-year there were inequalities on an economic basis and a racial basis, but we felt pretty convinced that in this full year that is going to start next September that will be much better," Morse said. The board will get reports from the agency in December and next June detailing demographic trends and other implementation issues.
Board member and former legislator Peter Peltz agreed with the go-slow approach and said this first year there were not enough school districts participating in the program to get a representative picture. But he re-emphasized that the intent of the law was to help low-income children access quality early education.
The analysis also found that Champlain Valley schools outweighed the rest of the state in the number of pre-K offerings as well as those that were early adopters of Act 166. Peltz said the board heard testimony from some supervisory unions that are doing well.
"Basically the three people that came up before and testified had been (offering pre-K for a while) and were early adopters, and they were off to the races," Peltz said. "That is not necessarily representative of what is happening statewide. I remain concerned, but personally I am not as alarmed that something has to be done immediately to address this."
Nicole Mace, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association, testified as well. She referred to a map in the Education Agency report that shows where the programs are located that have the green light from the state to offer pre-K.
Mace said she is worried that some parts of the state don't have the capacity to offer a quality pre-K experience. She hopes the state board will continue to monitor whether a voucher system is the best way to ensure access and capacity, particularly in areas of the state that lack economies of scale.
Board member William Mathis said that in a recent meeting with superintendents from the southwestern part of Vermont, he learned that the voucher had become an entitlement. "What the superintendents were reporting to me in the Southwest region is that yes, it did in fact turn into a subsidy for the more affluent parents, and that bothers me."
Matt Levin, executive director of the Vermont Early Childhood Alliance, said it was too early to make a fair assessment of Act 166. "Clearly there are some children who will benefit to a higher degree from some of the services being offered, but you can't expect a program like this to instantaneously reach every person you are seeking to reach," he said.
Levin applauded the board's decision to continue monitoring the way the program is being rolled out while waiting for more data instead of relying on one-off accounts. "We need to see what is happening around the state — not just anecdotally, but factually," he said.
When asked if he expects the December and June reports to draw a different picture, he replied: "I expect them to be more complete, and if they are not different, that will begin to point much more urgently that perhaps adjustments might be necessary."
Tiffany Danitz Pache is VTDigger's education reporter. She can be contacted at tpache@vtdigger.Org. Follow her on Twitter @tpache.