Universal Preschool: A story of three states
July 31, 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, the immigrants, those from broken homes 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 defined so broadly as to be meaningless. "Studies" are cited to prove that over half of the children entering kindergarten are "at risk" for failure. In Minnesota, the study the advocates of universal preschool cited was deliberately misrepresented, but that didn't stop them from using it aggressively in radio, TV, and newspaper advertising 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 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.

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

Will New CA Bill Stop Homeschooling?
Minnesota Nanny State Tidal Wave Held Back
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 initiatives 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, thats just a handy way to sell us on the concept. We feel better as parents if we think were voluntarily giving our children an edge via preschool, even if this supposedly free preschool at a projected cost of $2 billion gives 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. Its 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 childs place is in the home, wonders about the standards that Mr. Reiners seemingly altruistic plan would entail.

Minnesota Nanny State Tidal Wave Held Back
Success for Families Opposing a comprehensive new system for all children, birth - 5
July 21, 2005

        Minnesota held back the tidal wave of a new and expansive pre-school system that would have put in place the building blocks for a Minnesota Nanny State for all children birth - 5 . This planned system of curriculum standards, and screening and assessments of all children, based on those curriculum standards, was not adopted in the 2005 MN legislative session. 

        The chief proponent of Minnesota's Nanny State, Ready4K, states it this way on their website:
" Small baby steps were taken by the Legislature and Governor, but bold investments in our young children, and our future, were left for another day."
        This a tremendous success, in spite of some real disappointments. Taxpayers are up against large corporate business interests, special interest groups, and radical social planners who have massive funding at their disposal and complete, easy media access. The success in holding back the tide in 2005 is truly inspiring, and it is due to the persistent involvement of EdWatch and the many parents and constituents who made their views known to lawmakers.

A Big Disappointment: Minnesota Early Learning Foundation (MELF)
        The biggest disappointment in the 2005 legislative session is the passage of the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation (MELF), an unaccountable public-private partnership set up outside state government that will oversee a state grant program to influence and mold the childcare programs in Minnesota. While MELF is defined as helping low income families, also included is an undefined, vague category of "other challenged families." MELF's purposes also  include expanding public and nonpublic childcare "capacity" and teaching all parents what to teach their children. The door is now open for special interest groups to use state money to set up a state childcare "system" for all, with a politicized agenda to train unsuspecting parents, direct the curriculum of public and private childcare centers, and expand government workers visiting homes.

        Key legislators kept out explicit language adopting curriculum standards, assessments, and a childcare quality rating system based on those standards as part of MELF's purposes. The special interest group Ready4K has already developed a Quality Rating System, however, which they seem to have expected to be adopted into statute in this session. The Ready4K Quality Rating System is based in part on childcare centers implementing the worldview curriculum standards in order to be rated "qualified." 

        Even without adopting the standards, assessments and the quality rating system within MELF, however, the very existence of MELF is major trouble for parents and families in Minnesota. Nothing in the law prohibits the MELF grant program from being used by bureaucrats to promote the Quality Rating System. In fact, taxpayer funded early childhood funds (ECFE) are currently being used in Anoka, Ramsey and Washington Counties to train unsuspecting private childcare providers in the radical state curriculum standards, telling providers that it will help them become "quality rated" by Ready4K, and thereby gain them access to state grant money. Once again, taxpayer money is being used to guide families and private and public childcare centers into teaching content such as gender identity, social activism, environmentalism, group identity and diversity training.to our youngest children...

What else was stopped   
1.) Outcome Based tEducation type curriculum standards for 3 and 4 year olds were not adopted into law. This de facto curriculum consists of vague, subjective, non-academic, and psycho-socially inappropriate indicators. It usurps parental authority for teaching values and beliefs to children and it would have been aggressively promoted to all parents and all childcare providers at taxpayer expense.
2.) Outcome Based Education type curriculum standards for children, birth through age 3 were not adopted into law. We can expect this de facto curriculum, still in development by the Department of Human Services, to be similar to those for 3 and 4 year olds. They would have been distributed to all parents of infants and toddlers and to childcare centers.
3.) A requirement that child care providers receiving any state money would be required to base their programs and care guidelines on the state-mandated curriculum standards was not adopted into law.
4.) Mandatory, universal developmental screening of all Minnesota children at least once by the age of three was not adopted into law. This would have extended developmental screening to all children, whether or not they would have attended public schools.
5.) Aggressive state promotion of screening 3 and 4 year olds, coordinating various groups to work together, such as childcare programs, community organizations, public and private health care organizations, and individual health car providers was not adopted into law.
6.) A system of universal preschool assessments that mirror No Child Left Behind's (NCLB) most controversial mandate, the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) was not adopted into law. The DFL Senate plan would have set goals for the number of preschoolers "reaching proficiency on all measures of the assessment," and the measure of proficiency would have been the Profile-like curriculum standards. Each year, the goal would have increased: 6,000 children meeting proficiency in 2006; 18.000 in 2007; 30,000 in 2008; 45,000 in 2009; and 60,000 in 2010, finally getting to 100%. The Department would have reported on progress toward these goals on a school by school basis. This AYP is straight out of NCLB.
7.) A Quality Rating System (QRS) for both public and private childcare centers (misrepresented as being "voluntary") was not adopted as part of the education bill. Republican Sen. Bob Kierlin carried the QRS proposal in the Senate, and it was included in the omnibus Health and Human Services bill. It appears at this time that the QRS was not adopted in the final Health and Human Services bill, either. However, we are awaiting final confirmation of this information. The QRS would have required integrating the worldview curriculum standards into childcare programs and activities in order to be "qualified," and it would have tied government grant eligibility to any childcare center based on its "quality" rating.
        Stopping these seven items is an extraordinarily important accomplishment.

What else was gained
1.) Parents may now use their own physician or health care provider, rather than the school district, to have their child developmentally screened before entering a public kindergarten program, and school districts must inform parents of that option.
2.) Assessments of a child before and after participating in school readiness programs will be limited to "cognitive" skills, rather than including a child's values, attitudes, and beliefs.
What else was not stopped
1.) When children are initially screened, they will now be assigned a child ID number for data tracking by the state and federal governments. This ID number will collect and store personal information and testing and screening information that will follow them throughout their lives.
2.) A "coordination program" will now be implemented to use existing state programs, resources, and policies in the Departments of education, human services, and health to cooperatively push state early childhood initiatives. That means that existing programs, such as health, nutrition, welfare, home visiting, public and private health care, foster care, and shelters, will promote the state early childhood programs. That coordination will be reviewed by the legislature next year.

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).

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