Commentary: A Potentially HUGE Bill for Property Taxpayers on the Horizon (April, 2016)

by Rob RoperRob Roper

Vermont property taxpayers are in the pot like the boiling frog from that old analogy. For over a decade we have been following the goal of the VTNEA and their allies in Montpelier to expand the public school system by two years to include three and four-year-olds. The next steps in this long-term play are underway right now.

First, a brief history of how we got to where we are today. In 2006, the legislature passed Act 62, which make “Universal Pre-K” for three and four-year-olds eligible for funding by property taxpayers. This was sold as a voluntary program for school districts, and public schools mostly partnered with “qualified” private childcare businesses to provide 10 hours of “quality” childcare per week.

In 2013, the voluntary aspect went away when the legislature mandated that all school district must provide access to those 10 hours of pre-k whether they want to or not (Act 166). And, by this time, more public schools started to forget about those private partnerships and put programs into their own buildings.

Then, in 2014 Vermont got a $33 million federal grant (Hooray, free money!) to support full day pre-k programs for four-year-olds. A Vermont Digger article notes that one such program “includes meals, transportation and access to art, music, gym and library.” Sounds like whole other grade of school, doesn’t it?  The grant pays for everything except the 10 hours per week Vermonters are mandated to cover under our own law.

But here’s the catch (and we bet you saw this coming)…. The federal money goes away after four years. So, Vermont property taxpayers, get out your wallets! The lobbying campaign already begun. As Digger explains:

The Joint Fiscal Office has not yet researched the impact of a change to the weighting system for pre-K students [from .46 to 1.0] on the education fund. Mark Perrault, a fiscal analyst for JFO, said the change would likely lower the per pupil spending rates for towns that offer full-time pre-K. Towns that don’t offer full time pre-K would have higher per pupil spending rates, and under the education yield formula, would end up absorbing the cost in higher local property taxes for towns that do provide full-time pre-K, he said.

So, the districts that don’t offer this program get to pay for those that do, until this perverse incentive (accompanied undoubtedly with cries for “equity”) drives everybody to implement the program, at which time everybody has to pay. If there are any holdouts, no doubt Montpelier will repeat history and make the program mandatory.

Keep in mind that the $33 million grant (average $8.25 million per year) only covers pilot programs in eight supervisory unions and a half a dozen or so individual school districts. That’s about $1 million per supervisory union per year. There are currently over 60 supervisory unions in Vermont. Do the math! And then, of course, you can double that price when they inevitably move onto the next phase of adding three-year-olds into the mix.

The propaganda campaign pushing for this is in full swing. Two articles in Vermont Digger, Early Education Survey Highlights Public Private Differences, and Education Board Asked to Offer Fix for Concerns About Pre-K Law speak to the point. The first article basically trashes privately run childcare facilities, citing statistics from a poorly participated in survey such as,

Nearly 80 percent of Vermont’s public school survey respondents hold higher degrees, with 23 percent having a bachelor’s degree in early childhood or a related field and 45 percent holding a master’s in the subject. In contrast, the majority of family providers have a high school degree or a GED, while 23 percent of respondents said they have some college.

Who wants to send their kids to a childcare center run by poorly educated, poorly paid unsophisticates? Forget the fact that before Vermont kids had widespread access to these “high quality,” public-school-run pre-k programs and small, home based childcare was pretty much it, Vermont kids actually scored better on benchmark tests when they reached the fourth grade than they do now.

The second article is perhaps even more alarming. The Speaker of the House, Shap Smith (D-Morristown), has asked the State Board of Education to investigate and recommend fixes to the Vermont’ universal pre-k law. According to the article:

The main concerns are that some working and impoverished families can’t take advantage of the vouchers the state provides for 10 hours a week of pre-kindergarten for every child, because they can’t pay for the rest of the week.

Families may also lack transportation to get their children to a center or pick them up after the voucher hours and move them to day care for the rest of the workday.

Yup. Ten hours a week of property taxpayer funded pre-k is not enough. We need forty hours a week of property taxpayer funded pre-k to make it “fair.” It doesn’t take a preschooler to figure out exactly where this is going. Or where the money’s going to come from. You!

- Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Jim Bulmer May 3, 2016 at 1:29 pm

First off, back in the early days when this whole pre-K dialogue started, there was compelling testamony from learned experts that blew a hole in the myth that pre -K was enormously helpful to these children. With the exception of children with special needs, the so called benefits evaporated in a couple of years and these children performed no better or worse than their non-pre k peers. These expert testimonies were refuted by the NEA, and guess what the NEA prevailed. How’s that for influence and pressure? You see, these experts were from out of state a couldn’t vote. As for the “advanced” degree argument, what schools awarded them? Peoples’ State Teachers College, The You Never Heard of It School for Higher Learning and so on???? Give us a break!!!! It’s the same old, same old, all one hs to do is check out the NEA’S position on this issue, and you’ll know in a nanosecond what the legislature will do!!!! It’s time for a change. VOTE in November.

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