Jul 18, 2016

VPR Commentator John Vogel: Pre-Kindergarten

On July 1, Vermont became the fourth State to fund pre-Kindergarten for all its 3 and 4 year old children. It’s a good first step and speaks to an important need. According to Governor Shumlin, for 70% of the children in Vermont under the age of 6, both parents are in the labor force.

Hence there is a desperate need for daycare, and Act 166 helps subsidize the cost and mandates that school districts develop a sufficient number of quality programs to accommodate all their 3 and 4 year olds. But I’m afraid this law promises more than it delivers. The law only requires and provides funding for 35 weeks and just 10 hours per week. Working parents need much more.

Act 166 also mandates that pre-k providers hire a teacher who’s licensed in early childhood education, a laudable but expensive requirement. Clearly, the Vermont Legislature tried to balance the need to subsidize pre-K programs and the need to ensure quality against the many other demands on the State budget. But research tells us that if we implement high quality pre-K programs, the savings will fully offset the costs.

This is exactly what is happening in Utah, which used Social Impact Bonds to fund some of its pre-K programs, and the savings from having fewer children enrolled in special education classes has more than paid for the pre-K programs.

In Vermont, we’re fortunate to have one of the leading, nonprofit organizations in the country in the field of early childhood literacy. The Stern Center in Williston started as an organization focused on students with learning disabilities like dyslexia. It soon discovered that many of the techniques that helped their clients would help ALL children.

The Stern Center also got deeply involved in teaching literacy skills to pre-schoolers. In research experiments with a control group, the Stern Center proved that training daycare workers in language enrichment techniques, though a program called Building Blocks, is effective and greatly increases the number of children who come to kindergarten ready to read and ready to succeed in school.

I salute Representative Sarah Buxton, Governor Shumlin and the State Legislature for passing Act 166. But Vermont needs to do more.

The real savings and benefits will come when we increase the hours and train pre-school teachers using the latest neuroscience research.

Click here to listen to this commentary on VPR.net. 

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