By Rob Roper
In a recent debate, Gov. Phil Scott and Democratic candidate Christine Hallquist both expressed their policy preference for expanding government-run pre-K programs. Scott favored a smaller approach, using $7 million in new, anticipated sales tax revenue from internet sales to bolster existing programs. Hallquist endorsed spending at least $200 million to massively expand the size and scope of what the state offers. Neither is on the right track.
The debate in question was hosted by Let’s Grow Kids, one of the many organizations in the state that advocates for birth to five “early education.” In a 2016 report compiled by a Blue Ribbon Commission on Financing High Quality, Affordable Child Care outlined in their final report that the real, final cost of a comprehensive birth-to-five plan would actually cost $849,254,369 a year. Mostly on top of the $1.7 billion we already spend on education in Vermont.
So, Scott wants to crack the door to this budget buster, and Hallquist wants to really kick it open it, but neither is acknowledging the real and explosive implications for property taxes in in the long run.
Sadly, as more and more states adopt publicly funded and governed pre-K programs, the more evidence we have showing that these programs do not benefit children over the long term, and in some cases it appears that they actually do long term harm — both academically and behaviorally. However, even more sadly, the pretense that these programs are “for the kids” is being displaced by the argument that they are really about getting young mothers back into the workforce, despite the negative impacts of separating children from their parents at such a young age. To put it another way, pre-K programs have become just another form of corporate welfare.
But, if Vermont really wants to attract more young families, we should focus on expanding our tuitioning system to all families, not just those lucky enough to live in non-operating school districts. School choice, where it exists, already brings young, entrepreneurial families to our state. As the Bernier family of Elmore explained in testimony regarding the Elmore/Morrisville merger, they are a couple working in jobs that can be done from anywhere in the world. They moved from Rhode Island to Elmore in great part because the town offered school choice. When Elmore lost school choice in an Act 46 merger, they moved to another town that still had choice.
Their story is not unique. In fact, after East Haven closed its public schools in 2011 due to declining enrolment and became a choice town, the number of students in the district nearly doubled in just three years from 11 to 20 at the elementary level and from 11 to 21 at the secondary levels.
Statewide school choice is a highly marketable, highly valuable sales pitch that Vermont could own. No other state could offer anything comparable. It benefits children. It benefits families. And, as a solution that does not cost nearly a billion dollars a year to implement, it benefits taxpayers.