ST. ALBANS — Educating Vermont’s youngest children is creating some challenges for schools, many of them financial.
At St. Albans City School a successful full-day PreK program may be endangered when federal funds run out, while Fletcher Elementary doesn’t have room for all of the students needing preschool to attend.
Vouchers for students attending private programs are also a concern.
Act 166, which requires schools to provide 10 hours of preschool per week to three and four year olds went into effect this school year.
“As a superintendent and as an educator, I totally support the idea of Act 166,” Ned Kirsch, superintendent of Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union said. “But I think that there’s some pieces of the law that don’t work correctly and I think they should be fixed before it’s too late.”
Act 166, signed into law in 2014, is designed to provide access to prekindergarten education for all children. Under the act, three and four year olds shall receive no fewer than ten hours of preschool education per week.
Kirsch said the main goal of Act 166 is equity, “to have all students who are that age, either 3 or 4, to have the same opportunities.” The ten hours of preschool are free, which allows parents who might not typically be able to afford it, send their children to school.
However, Kirsch said he thinks there are still barriers preventing all kids from accessing the ten hours of free preschool.
One is the “arbitrary” requirement of 10 hours of preschool, Kirsch said. “The research behind preschool says 20 hours,” he said, “and the 10 hour mark was a compromise.”
A study conducted by the National Institute for Early Education Research found the benefits of full-day preschool over half-day programs to be significant. Results showed children who attended full-day programs did better on mathematics and literacy tests than children in a 2.5 to 3-hour public preschool program.
“At least in our school system, that boxes us in a little bit around scheduling, around space,” Kirsch said, referring to the ten-hour requirement. “In Fletcher next year, we’re not going to be able to serve all the three year olds.”
In past years, Fletcher offered seven hours of preschool for three year olds and nine hours for four year olds.
Kirsch said he school does not have the space to hold all of the eligible three year olds. The Fletcher school district now has a lottery system in place to allow the lucky few to go there.
“That’s why we have to put the money in for the vouchers,” he said.
Under Act 166, parents do not have to send their children to a supervisory union run preschool. They are allowed to send their child to any accredited or four-star program in the state, never mind the school district. If the parents choose to do this, the school district they reside in has to pay $3,000 in tuition.
“Truth be told, many, many, many parents aren’t going to be able to use that voucher,” Kirsch said. “There are no four star preschools in our [supervisory union].”
Little Academy Preschool is the only other preschool in Fairfax, but currently it only has three stars. If a parent wanted to send their child there, the school district could not provide a voucher to pay for it.
“So a parent or day care provider would have to bring that child to a four star preschool in say St. Albans or in Milton,” he said. “Parents aren’t going to be able to take off in the middle of the day and do that.”
When ten hours are spread out over the course of the week, it is only a couple of hours each day of preschool. Parents could drop of their child in the morning before work, but would then need to pick him or her up mid-day.
Kirsch said sending the child to preschool for the full day isn’t an option either. The voucher only covers 10 hours, nothing more. Some parents can “afford those ten hours, but they can’t afford the whole day,” he said.
“What’s going to happen to those kids?” Kirsch asked. “And that’s what scares me. I think there’s going to be kids who we really want to be in preschool, probably the kids who may need it the most, aren’t probably going to get there.”
Kirsch had other concerns about the vouchers.
Parents can use the vouchers at any accredited preschool program. “So its public school money that’s going out into the private sector,” he said. “We don’t know how the money is necessarily used.” Kirsch said the program does not have to use the voucher toward improving preschool instruction.
Kirsch said he’s also worried about the financial aspect. “We could have 50 parents from Georgia say next year, ‘Well, We want to do the voucher,” he said. “We would have to pay for that out of the voucher, but we would also have overstaffed our schools.”
Right now, each school district has estimated in their budget how much money they expect they will need for vouchers. In Fairfax, they allocated $18,000, providing tuition services for about eight students at $3,093 per child.
Kirsch said the ideal situation is Georgia’s school district preschool. “We have enough space in the building,” he said. “The Georgia School District also pays for busing for kids.”
“There’s total equity if parents want to have access to the program,” he said.
St. Albans City School
City school has implemented their own version of Act 166 since the start of the millennium and now, they have started to expand their program to avoid pitfalls like transportation.
“We’ve been doing universal access for all four year olds since 2001,” Michelle Spence, coordinator of early childhood programs, said. “We had that in place.”
Spence said the school was also serving some three year olds, but not at ten hours per week and did not provide vouchers for other preschools.
Spence said with the universal access to early learning opportunities program, the school was “just trying to provide a large array of offerings that could meet families’ needs wherever they were at.”
“Back then we used Medicaid reinvestment dollars to get that going,” she said, “and there was already something written into the education funding formula that allowed us to count those students like any other child.”
The program initially provided around 30 students with ten hours of schooling a week. Now, the school provides space for 70 students, with 32 of those going to preschool all day, Monday through Friday. The rest participate in the school’s ten-hour program.
Principal Joan Cavallo said the full day preschool program follows the kindergarten school day.
“They get bussed here with the kindergarteners and they get bussed home,” she said.
“Transportation is usually an issue with why kids drop out of the part time programs because they just can’t get here,” Cavallo said. “They don’t have reliable transportation, especially in the bad weather months.”
“They get all the services that a kindergartener would get,” she continued, describing the full day program. “So they have [physical education] and they have art, music and tech ed. They’re doing robotics.”
Cavallo said the program has been so successful, “not a single kid dropped out and we have a waiting list.”
“We were able to do it because there is a federal pre-k expansion grant that we applied for,” Cavallo said, “that pays for everything beyond the ten hours that we are required to provide.”
“With a .46 reimbursement, we wouldn’t have been able to do it without that,” she said. “A regular student in K to 6 would get a 1.0 reimbursement and you would need that much to run it without the federal expansion grant.”
For purposes of state funding, pre-school students are considered just 0.46 of a student.
“We’re hoping to see all day students count as all day students,” Cavallo said.
“Joan’s already been down to testify once in Montpelier because they need to change the funding formula,” Spence said. “If they’re here all day, they should count as a full time student just like everybody else does. But there has to be legislation around it to make that change.”
The federal grant allowing city school’s expanded PreK program will last for the next three years. Spence said the school should be able to sustain it past that date if the legislature makes a full-time PreK student count the same as other elementary school students.