Gov. Phil Scott on Thursday proposed a universal after-school network that would allow students to access enrichment programs and align their schedules with those of their working parents.
Referencing a similar program in Iceland, the Republican governor said the model has been shown to prevent drug use and improve academic and social outcomes.
“The evidence is clear,” he said during his State of the State address. "Kids who participate in after-school activities and programs do better in school and in life than kids who don’t."
What Scott did not mention is how the state would pay for the plan — or that it’s not really a plan at all. Rather, it's a call for legislators to create a task force that could design a system that would be implemented years from now. His only two clear requests: the program be voluntary and not rely on any property taxes.
Democratic leaders were quick to point out the lack of specifics. But while the scant details that have been made public suggest that Scott’s proposal is slightly less ambitious than it may have seemed at first, one legislator said he was still encouraged.
“I'm as big a skeptic of the administration as anybody,” said Sen. Phil Baruth (D-Chittenden), who chairs the Senate Committee on Education. “But I think this is perfectly sincere, perfectly authentic, in terms of a bipartisan stretching out of the governor’s hand.”
Baruth was briefed on the plan Wednesday along with several other lawmakers who sit on the education committees in the Senate and House. The senator said both chambers have been taking testimony for years on a potential expansion to Vermonters’ access to after-school programs, and the lawmakers were "delighted" to learn of Scott's suggestion.
Baruth said he's since asked legislative counsel to draft a bill that would create the governor's desired task force. He expected the bill to be ready next week.
Equally pleased with the idea was Holly Morehouse, executive director of the nonprofit Vermont Afterschool, which focuses on supporting such learning opportunities. Morehouse said her organization received a call from the governor’s office a few hours before the speech letting her know of his proposal.
She was specifically encouraged by Scott’s focus on equity gaps, because access to after-school programs varies greatly depending on where children live, she said.
One area of the plan that she hoped might have some wiggle room was the timeline. “I understand wanting to be careful and figure it out,” she said. “[But] we also have a lot of base work done. It’s not like we’re starting from an idea from scratch.”
Scott’s office released a two-page brief following the speech that shows the task force would ideally share its report in January 2021. The legislature and the governor’s office could then work together over the next two years for full implementation in 2024.
Baruth acknowledged the slow rollout is the one aspect of the plan where he and the governor differ. He said the state created dual enrollment and early college access programs in nearly half the time under the Shumlin administration.
Still, Baruth said he was glad that he and other legislators were keyed into the governor’s thinking. The administration has not always been known for keeping lawmakers in the loop, he said, which is part of why he believes Scott is sincere.
“I have seen when this administration is not willing to hear from legislators," Baruth said. “That's not this. This seemed to be a very genuine piece of outreach, and I think the governor honestly, before he leaves office, wants to put this program in place.”