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Agencies Ask For Big Changes To Universal Pre-K Billing System

Desks in a line in an empty classroom. Up close of one with books in it.
A joint report that was handed over to the Legislature by the two agencies recommends that the Agency of Education take over administration of Vermont's Universal pre-K system.

State officials say Vermont's prekindergarten system needs an administrative overhaul.When lawmakers passed Act 166 in 2014 they established a publicly-funded, universal prekindergarten system that was overseen by the Agency of Education and the Agency of Human Services.

Under the new law, families can use public money to pay for up to ten hours a week of pre-K programming, but a new report finds that there has been too much duplication and confusion with the two agencies administering the program.

A joint report that was handed over to the Legislature by the two agencies recommends that the Agency of Education take over administration of Vermont's Universal pre-K system.

Under the current system supervisory unions bill local, private pre-K providers, and the report also calls for all billing to go through the Agency of Education.

"The two agencies have different ways of dealing with each of these sectors and a lot of time when we were both trying to respond to a concern, it often took us a long time for us to agree on a response," said Agency of Education deputy secretary Amy Fowler. "That slowed everything down, and people said they needed a clear sense of who was responsible for what, both when we were happy and unhappy, so there is a more streamlined interaction process."

Fowler stressed that while the report is asking for big changes in how universal pre-k in Vermont is administered, the basic rules around how families can access the public money remains the same.

Families can use public money to pay for up to 10 hours of prekindergarten programming, and the money can be used in a private pre-K center that has been certified.

Fowler says some private providers are dealing with more than 10 different supervisory unions, while the busiest supervisory union can have up to 50  different providers to deal with.

Under the proposed reforms, all billing would flow through the Agency of Education.
Fowler says if lawmakers go along with the changes, the Agency of Education would be asking for one or two new staff members to deal with the administrative changes.

"Supervisory unions are now spending time dealing with the billing," Fowler says. "We want to have one place to go for all of the billing, and that will give them the time to focus on the children and families they serve."

The report that suggests the changes was submitted to the House and Senate on education, the House Committee on Human Services and the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare.

If lawmakers go along with the changes proposed in the report, then the state should give the two agencies time to develop a new administrative framework for the universal prekindergarten program.

The Agency of Education says the changes could be in place before May 2019.

Correction 12/17/17 The number of pre-K centers that some supervisory unions are working with has been updated to more accurately reflect the challenge of administering the universal pre-K program.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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