At a ceremony in Rutland on Wednesday, Gov. Peter Shumlin signed into law a bill offering early education to every 3- and 4-year-old in the state. It was one of the signal accomplishments of this yearís legislative session and an important step forward for Vermont.
Under the new law, 3- and 4-year-olds will be able to have 10 hours a week of early education through 35 weeks. That amounts to two hours a day, five days a week, during the equivalent of the school year.
Vermont already has a high rate of participation in early education relative to the other states, with 48 percent participation. The national average is 28 percent. But the need for broad availability remains ó for the well-being of children and families and for the economic future of the state.
Economic pressures and family life are not what they once were. The model no longer holds that fathers are the ones going off to work, leaving neighborhoods full of housewives caring for their small children at home. Most women work to fulfill their aspirations and out of economic necessity, making a variety of forms of child care a need that must be met so that families can prosper.
One of those forms is the kind of high-quality early education that has been shown to make a major difference in nurturing children and preparing them for school. Early education is especially important for children from families that are struggling or in which parents themselves did not benefit from a good education. Study after study has shown that early education leads to better results in school in later years and greater prospects in life.
Itís not enough to wish that the old model still prevailed. It is a different sort of world, and the problems of economic inequality mean that people who are poor these days have a harder time climbing out of the mire of poverty. Education is the most important avenue up and out, and in order to make education effective, it is essential to give kids a good start.
The move toward universal pre-K is part of a widening recognition that positive steps are necessary to counter the drift of wealth to the top. Support for education is one of the most important positive steps. Health care reform, which ensures that people are not bankrupted by health crises, is another. This year the Legislature voted to raise the minimum wage, another way to help people escape the clutches of need that keep them trapped.
The push for universal early education had bipartisan support in Vermont. Sen. Kevin Mullin, Republican from Rutland County, was the lead sponsor in the Senate. He spoke of the need for equal opportunity. At present, early education may or may not be available, depending on what town you live in. Now it will be available everywhere.
That property taxes are now a statewide source of revenue evens out the tax burden among towns, and though expanded early education will add to the demand for revenue, it is expected to be modest. Also, low- and middle-income Vermonters are protected from an onerous new tax burden by the income-sensitivity provisions of the education funding system.
It is not true that the nation is too poor to provide the kind of services that are available in other industrialized countries. The nation has vast wealth if we are willing to tap it. Instead, through the years, wealth has won a raft of special privileges and protections so that services such as early education that could advance opportunity and reduce inequality have been left wanting.
Vermont alone cannot redress the economic imbalances that have beset the nation, but taking steps such as the new early education law help. Policymakers must continue to assess the stateís tax structure and program needs through the lens of the new understanding about inequality and the way that it quashes opportunity.
A deeply rooted prejudice against the poor views poor citizens as a permanent underclass that lacks sufficient initiative to help itself. Experience shows that the category of the poor consists largely of people who suffer temporary setbacks or tough beginnings before getting the work they need to lift themselves up. Early education is not a program for the poor, specifically, but its benefits are likely to be felt especially by those who otherwise might have been left behind.MORE IN Perspective
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