Universal Preschool: A story of two other states

Issues and Action in Education

An e-letter produced by EdWatch, a nonprofit organization.

August 2, 2005

Universal preschool is being aggressively pushed as a national political agenda, but the promotion usually begins as something else. Advocates begin by targeting "at risk" kids, such as the homeless, immigrants, children from broken homes, children with parents on drugs or in prison, and so on. Most taxpayers earnestly desire to help genuinely "at risk" children, but "at risk" isn't clearly defined.

The concept of "at risk" is next expanded. "Studies" are cited to prove that over half of the children entering kindergarten are "at risk" for failure. In Minnesota,
the study used by the advocates of universal preschool was deliberately misrepresented, but that didn't stop them from advertising it aggressively on radio, TV, and in newspapers to push their political agenda -- $15 million for a private, unaccountable foundation to set up an early childhood system statewide.

Finally, the problem of "at risk" children is "solved" by establishing a state system for all children. In legislative committee hearings, programs targeted to "at risk" groups are quietly expanded to include universal screening, universal assessments, establishing birth to five curriculum standards with a radical worldview, universal assessments, aggressive home visiting and parenting classes for all, and hefty grant money to pull in the stragglers and hold the system together.

The battle is raging in every state. Wealthy special interest foundations and corporations fund multiple lobby groups and political committees. In California, a 2006 ballot initiative for "Preschool for All" is now running TV ad campaigns telling parents that without the right preschool, their children are doomed to failure. EdWatch's July 21st alert,
Minnesota Nanny State Tidal Wave Held Back, describes what Minnesota was able to accomplish because of the involvement of EdWatch in Minnesota. What passed in California, Vermont and other states would most certainly have passed in Minnesota without EdWatch's persistent, careful work and your faithful support.

Following are excerpts from articles about this year's legislative sessions in two other states. The full articles may be accessed at the links given.

Will New CA Bill Stop Homeschooling?
Universal Preschool in Vermont


Will New CA Bill Stop Homeschooling?
By Tricia S. Vaughan
July 30, 2005

...I was already feeling as though I wasn’t good enough to teach my own child. And this feeling, strange as it would seem to our pre-twentieth-century ancestors, is exactly what the Preschool-for-All Act advocates desire. In my current home state of California, a ballot initiative due for June 2006 will ask voters about government funding so that all children can attend preschool, but the groundwork for the initiative’s success has already been lain. Recent television campaigns have told my mommy friends and me that if we don’t start our children in the right preschool, our little darlings may have trouble getting into the right college. And “Preschool for All,” as CA Assembly Bill 172 is called, is being promoted by none other than Rob Reiner. How do these Hollywood sitcom stars help us make educational decisions? Or more to the point, why do they sell us on such silly ideas? ...

Although the Preschool-for-All people tell us that this initiative is for voluntary preschool, that’s just a handy way to sell us on the concept. We feel better as parents if we think we’re voluntarily giving our children an edge via preschool, even if this supposedly free preschool­at a projected cost of $2 billion­gives no guarantee that our children will succeed. But how long will this program be voluntary? Presently, some people are working to lower the compulsory school age so that children under six must attend school. It’s only a matter of time after the passage of the Preschool-for-All Act until we are forced to send our three-year-olds to school...

Diane Flynn Keith, who produces the well-written and insightful www.universalpreschool.com, a Web site that promotes the idea that a young child’s place is in the home, wonders about the standards that Mr. Reiner’s seemingly altruistic plan would entail.


Thursday, July 28, 2005
by John McClaughry

(Editor's Note This commentary appeared in the Barre Sunday Times Argus/Rutland Herald on July 3. The Ethan Allen Institute has been writing about early education issues for several years and was instrumental in bringing this topic to the public's attention in Vermont.)

With the signature of Gov. James Douglas on the FY 2006 appropriations bill, Vermont's tax-supported public school system grew by two more grades. Few legislators clearly understood that this was happening. It was accomplished completely below the radar of public and legislative debate, with almost zero attention from the news media. When most school districts take advantage of the new law, the cost to taxpayers will be from $40-70 million a year, most of it raised from the property tax

"At-risk" Children the Original Early Ed Targets
Since 1987 a few school districts have operated homemade preschool programs. In addition, a program called Essential Early Education, to help handicapped children who will later enter special education programs, has been in existence for many years. It is currently budgeted for $4.5 million a year, paid for from the state's general fund.

Act 60, the court-ordered education finance act of 1997, provided money from the new education fund to school districts to aid "at-risk" children (from low-income families or with limited English proficiency) through preschool or early-grade mentoring programs. Act 60 did not, however, authorize universal preschool programs for all children....

The Move to Fund Pre-School for All
In late 2002 then-commissioner Ray McNulty determined to lead Vermont into the new era of universal preschools. McNulty's initiative fell on eager ears within the educational establishment. The people running Vermont's schools are very much aware that the state's public school attendance is going down, while school spending is going sharply up. This can be difficult to explain to heavily burdened property taxpayers, who pay two-thirds the cost of the school system.

An obvious solution is to bring more pupils into the system. Three- and four-year-olds come cheap. They can be "educated" (the distinction between early education and day care remains controversial) at half the cost of serving elementary school kids. By adding two more grades below kindergarten, the schools can add new pupils that will increase the nation's lowest pupil-teacher ratio and actually bring down per-pupil spending.

The teachers' union, of course, will be delighted to enroll hundreds of new pre-K teachers and add them to its political action machine. Additional support comes from some large businesses eager to have taxpayer-financed pre-K to relieve day care pressures and costs for many of their employees, and remove the issue from employee benefits and collective bargaining.

In 2003 the Senate Education Committee took up Commissioner McNulty's initiative ...On April 2, 2003, after Senators beat down an effort on the floor to inject a small amount of parental choice into the program, the Senate passed S. 166 on a 28-0 vote.

In the House, however, S. 166 faced tougher sledding. Some representatives raised concerns about putting private day care centers out of business or driving up their costs to qualify them for "collaboration" with public schools. Others were alarmed that the new public school pre-K programs would effectively put church-based preschools out of business. Eventually S. 166 died in the House Education Committee...

For at least two years the department had been actively encouraging districts to create programs that went far beyond the long-established assistance for at-risk children. Acting only on the authority of its own rule, the department had approved education fund reimbursement for those programs. Despite the assurances from department lawyers, there is good reason to believe that school districts with such universal preschool programs are on thin legal ice, and that the department is in a politically awkward position.

School districts are draining $15 million a year from the education fund to pay for universal preschooling. But the education laws nowhere authorize the use of education fund spending for this purpose. In fact, the law reads "Upon withdrawal of funds from the education fund for any purpose other than those authorized by this section (K-12 programs)" the state property tax is repealed.

In January, Commissioner Cate sought the approval of the State Board of Education to adopt an amended preschool rule. The proposed rule spelled out conditions for collaboration with independent providers, and reaffirmed the inclusion of preschoolers in the pupil count to qualify for education fund spending.

Realizing the far-reaching nature of the proposed program expansion and its contested legality, the board balked. Cate withdrew the proposed rule. Sen. Jim Condos, D-Chittenden, then reintroduced S.166 (newly numbered S.132) to get the Legislature to solve the problem...On April 13 Vermonters for Better Education and the Ethan Allen Institute briefed Gov. Douglas and Administration Secretary Charlie Smith to explain the effects of S.132. They argued that ...S.132 could drive hundreds of independent preschool providers out of business by attracting most of their clients into "free" public programs. Gov. Douglas and Secretary Smith clearly understood the issue, but made no commitments.

By mid-May it was obvious that Sen. Collins' was not going to be able to push S.132 through the Senate, let alone the House, in 2005. ...So on May 20, Sen. Collins took the key provision of S.132 -- the inclusion of preschoolers in the Act 60 pupil count formula -- to the Appropriations Committee. Describing the provision as a technical amendment to ratify current practice, he persuaded the committee to add it to the Senate version of the FY 2006 appropriations bill. His appeal met with no resistance from the committee and, apparently, no objection from the Douglas administration.

On May 25 the Senate passed the bill and sent it off to conference with the House...Now the Senate was asking the House appropriations conferees to accept a brand new provision creating an open-ended, universal, education fund-financed preschool program, not just for at-risk children, but for all children. Despite the fact that the House had never considered the issue, the House conferees agreed to the Senate provision...The governor signed the appropriations bill into law on June 21...During this month of intense Statehouse activity on this issue, the Vermont news media took almost no notice of it..usually aggressive reporters of legislative doings did not find the matter worthy of mention.

Vermont has now become the sixth state to enact universal preschool Unlike all of the other states, Vermont acted without floor debate in either chamber of its legislature or voter approval through initiative. This sweeping measure, with its "potentially immense" costs to taxpayers, was quietly slipped through by Sen. Collins and his confederates, Senate Appropriations Chair Susan Bartlett, D-Lamoille and House Appropriations chair Martha Heath, D-Underhill, (who knew what the game was, but raised no objection.)

Preschool programs, now draining $15 million from the education fund, will rapidly increase as more and more school districts get in on the action, and as more and more parents opt to enroll their children. The private day care providers now face the choice of becoming indentured servants to the public schools, at best, or driven out of business as their customers migrate to the "free" taxpayer financed programs.

There has long been strong support for educational programs to help close the achievement gap for disadvantaged children. With the advent of universal preschools, the funding that might have closed that gap will now be distributed among all children, most of whom will get few if any measurable benefits beyond day care services...

With zero legislative debate, Vermont school districts now have been given the green light to create and expand universal preschools. As these proliferate, they will cause the perpetual annual expenditure of millions of taxpayer dollars, threaten the very existence of hundreds of small (and usually woman-owned) businesses, offer nothing to close the achievement gap affecting at-risk children, and quite possibly do nothing of any value for anyone other than the new teachers, aides and bureaucrats that will be called into being to absorb its spending.

John McClaughry, a former vice chair of the Senate Education Committee, is president of the Ethan Allen Institute (http://www.ethanallen.org


Order DVD: "Nanny State Take-over"
This $14 DVD is the April 14th presentation by Dr. Karen Effrem at a St. Paul, Minnesota Capitol luncheon. (Includes shipping and handling.)

“The Minnesota Early Learning System:
How a Political Agenda is Being Forced on Our Families & Children”
Call to order your copy today: 952-361-4931

Learn what bills the legislature was considering and how those bills would have would forced a political agenda on our families and our children! These same issues will be back with us in coming legislative sessions.


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