New law makes preschool available to more local students

Shelburne Nursery School. File photo
Shelburne Nursery School. File photo

Preschool is a special and exciting time for little ones: big-kid sneakers, cool lunchbox, new friends, and learning away from home for the very first time. Early childhood education is considered a vital first step in the academic and social development of children, and state legislators signed Act 166 into law last year in order to ensure that all Vermont kids get the opportunity to learn and grow in the same ways. While there are some challenges associated with implementing the law, local preschools are ready and excited to embrace it.

Act 166 requires preschools to provide free pre-kindergarten education to all children between the ages of three and five, for a minimum of ten hours per week, for 35 weeks a year. Both public and private preschools are included in the mandate, and to ensure quality education, schools must meet certain criteria. This includes becoming prequalified by the state, hiring at least one licensed preschool teacher, regularly updating parents on students’ progress, and being either accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) or have four stars from Vermont’s Step Ahead Recognition System (STARS). Three-star programs are also eligible if they have a plan in place to achieve four. Act 166 was originally passed in 2014, but at the end of that year, mandatory implementation was postponed until July 2016 in order to give schools more time to achieve compliance. This school year, participation is voluntary.

The state provides $3,000 per child per school year so that parents can afford to take advantage of these programs. Meeting all the state’s marks for qualification adds costs for preschool administrators, and there is a delicate balance between raising tuition to meet these costs and making sure that preschool remains affordable for families. Lisa Zengilowski, owner of Heartworks in Shelburne, said that the state law is “clear in that all of the $3,000 state payment per student is to go to parents and we certainly support this.”

She anticipates that the changes will not have any impact on the school or its students. “Heartworks staffing, training, and classroom practices have historically exceeded requirements under Act 166 and we expect to continue to provide the highest quality preschool staff and programs.”

Charlotte Children’s Center director Nancy Wood is not only ready to meet the challenges laid out by Act 166, she is grateful that the law has been put into place. It “is really a win-win situation for the families and the Center,” she said. “We are now able to offer preschool education to about a third more children than we have in the past. We have at least five parents who would not be able to send their children to preschool without this funding.”

The National Education Association calls early childhood education “one of the best investments our country can make.” Aside from the obvious academic advantages, many studies have proved that children who attend preschool reap lifelong benefits—they earn higher wages, have longer marriages, are less likely to go to jail, and are more likely to own their own homes. Paying for these advantages is always a challenge, as towns face tightened school budgets and Montpelier legislators are constantly stressed to lower taxes yet provide more assistance to working families. Heartworks and the Children’s Center are confident that they will be able to make adjustments accordingly, without passing on costs to parents.

Zengilowski said, “The state funding has made it possible for more parents to take advantage of opportunities to place their children in Heartworks and in some cases to do so for more, or longer, days.”

Wood agreed that “as teachers’ credentials increase, so must their compensation,” but adds that “families of preschoolers will not see an increase in their tuition payments for next year.”

Zengilowski has no plans to raise Heartworks tuition, either, saying that these new requirements are only a piece of a larger puzzle that determines tuition rates. She said, “Overall, this is a very desirable outcome of Act 166 that supports the research on the importance and benefits of preschool education.”

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