MONTPELIER -- Every 3- and 4-year-old in Vermont will have access to at least 10 hours a week of publicly funded, pre-kindergarten education under a bill signed into law Wednesday by Gov. Peter Shumlin.

"The children who aren't ready to learn when they begin elementary school are very likely to challenge our resources throughout their school years and potentially throughout their lives," Shumlin said as he signed the bill at the Stafford Technical Center in Rutland.

"We know that high-quality pre-kindergarten is far less expensive than remediation, retention, and special education later on."

Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe added that getting kids off to a good start can even alleviate pressures on the criminal justice system.

"On average, children who attend intensive, high-quality preschool programs are less likely to repeat a grade, drop out of high school, commit crimes or be placed in special education," she said. "They are likely to get better jobs and earn more money over the course of their work lives. We see universal preschool as integral to Vermont's future economic vitality and to the ability of our youngest and most vulnerable to thrive in school and their communities."

Rep. Sarah Buxton, D-Tunbridge and a lead sponsor of the bill, said offering free pre-k education to children will add about $10 million a year in costs to the state's Education Fund by 2021.

Parents will be able to have public support to take their children to public or private - but not religious - pre-schools both inside and outside their home districts.

Bill Anton, principal of the Dover School in southern Vermont, said that his district already is seeing positive results from a program for 4-year-olds instituted more than a decade ago and a program for 3-year-olds it implemented three years ago.

The district spends about $50,000 of its $2.8 million annual budget on the pre-K program, he said. But since the early 2000s it has cut its annual special education budget from about $250,000 to about $40,000, he said.

Anton said that helping young children struggling with reading skills can prevent them from needing special education in elementary school or later.

The bill allows parents to enroll children in pre-k programs in the district where they work, rather than where they live and pay property taxes. That bothered some lawmakers, even strong supporters of publicly funded pre-K programs.

Rep. Alison Clarkson, D-Woodstock, said enrolling children in the local pre-school and elementary school is "a very important community bonding experience," that encourages social contact between children and parents from both professional and working-class backgrounds.

"So many of my relationships in this town come from being parents together," she said. "Parents who are doctors and parents who are garbage collectors meet."

Buxton said tuition portability would be crucial to the law's success. For parents working 20 miles from their home school district, "the ability to enroll their 3- and 4-year old in that (home district) program and go back and forth from work is virtually nonexistent," she said.