As is the Roundtable’s practice, our legislative policy agenda is one that we believe has the strongest possible connection to a long-term positive future for all Vermonters. And because of our small size and limited resources, that agenda is necessarily short, but runs deep. On several fronts, the Roundtable played a leadership role in bringing the employer perspective to bear in the development of education reform policies. Here is a summary of that work in the first year of the 2011-12 biennium.
Governor Peter Shumlin signed S.53, a bill that repeals the statutory cap that limits the number of children in state-funded pre-k, into law on May 19, 2011, at a child care center in St. Albans, Vermont. The Governor, recognizing that the Vermont Business Roundtable was a driving force behind the bill, presented VBR President Lisa Ventriss with the “magic pen” that he used to sign the bill into law. The bill is now officially Act 38.
By way of background, the passage of Act 38 is an example of Incrementalism and the power of determination. In 2003, the ability of school districts to tap into the education fund to pay for prekindergarten education came under attack by many of the newly appointed State Board of Education members. Since the practice was only in state board rule, the Board needed only repeal the rule and the practice would end. Childcare advocates (including the Roundtable) turned to the legislature to put the practice in statute. It took four years, three bills and one summer study before Act 62, the law that codified the use of these funds for pre-k, was enacted into law in 2007. However, then Governor Jim Douglas opposed the bill. The only way to get him to sign the bill in 2007 was to agree to the caps as a political compromise. Removal of the caps has been a legislative priority ever since.
Prekindergarten Study (Act 58/S.100) – Now that the pre-k caps have been removed, lawmakers are interested in simplifying the process for school districts to tap into the education fund to pay for pre-k programs. Lawmakers included a provision in S.100 that requires the departments of education and for children and families to consult with a number of interested parties and “review the statutes and rules regarding prekindergarten education programs offered by and through school districts and supervisory unions and shall determine ways in which the regulation of these programs can be simplified.” The departments’ joint report is due to lawmakers by January 15, 2012. The report must contain both detailed proposed rule changes along with statutory revisions necessary to implement them. This study presents an opportunity to pursue changes to the pre-k rules and law to improve access to these programs.
This study came from a request by the Vermont Superintendents Association to exempt school based pre-k programs from the safety and other licensing requirements of the department for children and families. Some advocates had concerns about that proposal so it turned into a study. The interested parties who by statue shall be consulted include: the Vermont Business Roundtable, Pre-K Vermont, the Vermont Superintendents Association, the Vermont School Boards Association, the Vermont Principals’ Association, the Vermont-National Education Association, the Vermont council of special education administrators, the Vermont community preschool collaborative, Kids Are Priority One Coalition and the Building Bright Futures Council.
Another issue that the Roundtable testified in support of, H.440 is a bill that proposes to make structural changes at the department of education. This bill will elevate the commissioner of education to a secretary position, make the secretary a gubernatorial appointee (as opposed to the current appointment by the State Board of Education) and make significant changes to the membership and duties of the State Board of Education. Governor Shumlin supports this bill as do many senators so it appears to have legs. However, this is a perennial bill that has been defeated many times in the past. The House Education Committee advanced the bill and it is pending in the House Government Operations Committee.