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Research Partnership Looks at Universal PreK Enrollment Patterns in Vermont

Clare Irwin

Clare Irwin
Senior Research Associate, REL Northeast & Islands

Sun Apr 01 2018

Decades of research have shown that participation in high-quality prekindergarten (preK) is associated with better outcomes for young children.1 Supported by the evidence base, overall state funding for preK programs increased by 47 percent nationwide over the last five years.2

But while attention to high-quality early education is on the rise, Vermont is one of only a handful of jurisdictions (Florida, West Virginia, and Washington, DC) where prekindergarten is considered universal, meaning that every child has an opportunity to enroll. In 2014, Vermont’s legislature passed Act 166, which instituted a state-funded, mixed-delivery system to provide universal preK to 3-year-olds, 4-year-olds, and preK-eligible 5-year-olds in the state.

Vermont’s universal preK is overseen by both the state Agency of Education (AOE) and the state Agency of Human Services, through its Child Development Division (CDD) in the Department for Children and Families. Full implementation of the program began during the 2016/17 school year, and from the outset, state leaders have been interested to know which preK students are enrolling where, examining both child and geographic characteristics.

“We suspect that our statewide policy isn’t being experienced the same way in all of our communities,” says AOE Deputy Secretary Amy Fowler. “We suspect the program is more challenging to implement in rural areas. Our stakeholders talk about how rural communities have a harder time creating programs at scale and attracting the qualified staff they value.”

To help dig into this data, AOE and CDD partnered with REL Northeast & Islands to create the Vermont Universal PreK Research Partnership. Kicked off in April 2017, the partnership is a five-year collaboration to address research needs related to the state’s universal preK model. Currently, the partnership is conducting an applied research study of preK enrollment patterns across the state. AOE and CDD leaders plan to use the study findings to guide future decisions on program implementation.

Vermont families have four options for enrolling their children in public preK. Children can attend preK in (1) a public school in their local supervisory union (school district), (2) a public school in another supervisory union, (3) a preapproved private child care center, or (4) a preapproved family child care home. Programs may qualify to participate in universal preK only if they have obtained a rating of at least 3 out of 5 stars on the state’s quality rating and improvement system (STep Ahead Recognition System; STARS).3

Because the state’s universal PreK initiative includes such a diversity of program options, state leaders have many questions about enrollment, including:

  • Are prekindergartners from rural areas enrolling more frequently in a particular type of program?
  • What is the distribution of students in particular demographic groups (e.g., race, age, free or reduced-price lunch eligibility) across 3-, 4-, and 5-star rated programs?
  • Are there particular groups of 3-year-olds, 4-year-olds, and preK-eligible 5-year-olds who enroll in the different types of preK program options?

The answers to these questions have important implications for equity of access to early education.

While Vermont does conduct an annual evaluation of the program that looks at the number of children enrolled in preK, the number of programs, and the quality of the programs, a deeper dive into the data is possible through the state’s collaboration with REL Northeast & Islands. Using data made available by AOE, REL Northeast & Islands researchers are conducting a descriptive study that will examine

  1. characteristics of children enrolled in each of the four program types and in programs with 3-, 4-, and 5-star ratings;
  2. geographic characteristics of programs, including distribution across supervisory unions;
  3. child and geographic characteristics associated with the likelihood that a child is enrolled in one of the four program types; and
  4. child and geographic characteristics associated with the likelihood that a child is enrolled in a program with a 3-, 4-, or 5-star quality rating score.

This research is critical to the future of universal preK in Vermont as the state legislature, which enacted the program, is paying close attention to outcomes. AOE and CDD want to ensure that any suggested changes to Vermont’s model of universal preK are grounded in the evidence base, making the partnership with REL Northeast & Islands crucial.

“Right now our statewide implementation is focused on state-level data and anecdotal experiences,” says Fowler. “This new study will help us better understand the degree to which our beliefs about implementation challenges are true and what strategies might be employed to address them."

This study will also be of interest to stakeholders beyond the Northeast & Islands region who are looking for models and guidance while exploring similar initiatives that support access to early education. Because mixed-delivery systems will likely be necessary in at least the early stages of any universal preK implementation, the study findings may inform a national audience on the learnings and challenges of providing broad access to high-quality early childhood education.

Learn more about this applied research study.

For research on the relationship between children’s preK experiences and their kindergarten entry skills, see the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) report Primary Early Care and Education Arrangements and Achievement at Kindergarten Entry.


1Yoshikawa, H., Weiland, C., Brooks-Gunn, J., Burchinal, M., Espinosa, L., Gormley, et al. (2013, October). Investing in our future: The evidence base on preschool. Washington, DC: Society for Research in Child Development. Retrieved February 15, 2017, from: https://www.fcd-us.org/the-evidence-base-on-preschool/

2Diffey, L., Parker, E., & Atchison, B. (2017, January). 50-State review. State pre-K funding 2016–2017 fiscal year: Trends and opportunities. Education Commission of the States. Retrieved June 15, 2017, from: https://www.ecs.org/ec-content/uploads/State_Pre-K_Funding_2016-17_Fiscal_Year_Trends_and_opportunities-1.pdf

3Vermont Department for Children and Families. (2017). Website for the STep Ahead Recognition System (STARS). Retrieved from: http://dcf.vermont.gov/childcare/providers/stars