Taxpayers might well view with trepidation the latest effort by lawmakers to expand pre-kindergarten programs in the public schools to all families who wish to take advantage of them.
Won’t universal pre-K open up a whole new phalanx of children for whom the public schools, and the taxpayers, will be responsible? Won’t taxpayers be in line for another big boost to the property tax?
Supporters of the plan say the jolt to the state’s education budget would not be as severe as people fear. There are about 11,300 3- and 4-year-old children in Vermont, and about 38 percent of them already participate in pre-K programs. Of the state’s 270 school districts, 230 already provide some level of pre-K education.
These numbers suggest that if the Legislature passes a law opening up pre-K education to all 3- and 4-year-olds, the hit to school budgets will be modest and gradual, building on what we are already doing. The Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office has predicted that in 2016, the first year the program would be in effect, there would be an added cost of only $1.2 million.
Enrollment in pre-K programs would grow over time; the Agency of Education predicts it would level off at 60 percent participation by 2020. Participation is not mandatory, as it is for kindergarten, and many parents can be expected to keep their young children at home or to enroll them in daycare programs that provide services extending beyond the limited hours of a public pre-K program. Pre-K education will not solve the problem that many working parents face in obtaining care that extends through the workday. A pre-K program that is open two or four hours a day will not suffice for parents whose children need care for eight hours or more.
Nevertheless, it is widely recognized, by Republicans and Democrats, by business groups and educators, and especially by parents, that available, affordable pre-K education is an invaluable service. Making the program universally available would be especially important to parents of limited means who would otherwise not be able to afford day care or another pre-K program. Giving children of low-income Vermonters a good start in school, with a comfortable introduction to books, play and other children, would provide a meaningful boost.
Gov. Peter Shumlin understands this, which is why he made the financing of expanded child care services a central element of his program this year. Unfortunately, his child care program became mired in the controversy surrounding the funding mechanism he chose to pay for it, which was the earned-income tax credit. Lawmakers were not about to take a bite out of the incomes of low-income working Vermonters, even to expand the availability of child care.
But now one important component of care for preschool kids has won the endorsement of the Vermont House, which has voted to make pre-K public education available to those who want it. It would add to the state’s education budget over time, drawing grumbles from Republicans who noted that the Legislature had only just completed work to help school districts hold the line on school budgets.
Legislators suggested that adding a new burden to the property tax would not be welcomed by taxpayers and that the general fund would be a better source for pre-K funding. It is a perennial issue: whether to shift education costs away from the property tax and toward the income tax, which is more progressive. But putting upward pressure on the income tax also has its opponents, including Shumlin.
At this point in the legislative session, there are many balls in the air. The Legislature is moving toward its final decisions on the state budget and taxes. Universal pre-kindergarten is a ball that is likely to remain in the air until next year when the Senate will be able to take a whack at it. What’s clear is that Shumlin miscalculated in many important areas and that the Legislature has forged its own path on important issues. They are in agreement on the need to help young children get ready for school. They can wait till next year to decide how to pay for it.
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