The state of Vermont is poised to adopt a universal pre-kindergarten program for 3- and 4-year-olds.

The new law will require school districts to offer at least 10 hours of instruction for 35 weeks to any preschool-aged child. The state will reimburse districts of qualified pre-kindergarten programs offered by private or public providers.

More than half of Vermont children are not ready for school when they enter kindergarten, according to a recent study from the Agency of Education.

Children from low-income families are more likely to struggle in school and perform poorly on standardized tests, according to data from the Vermont Agency of Education.

Educators, business and children’s advocacy groups have pressed the Legislature to enhance support for the program for several years. They want to ensure that all children have access to preschool.

While most of the state’s 270-plus districts already have programs for pre-K students, 37 do not. The universal pre-K bill will bring about 1,800 additional 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds into preschool programs. The total number of children who would take advantage of the program is expected to be about 6,000, or 60 percent of the state’s 11,284 preschool-aged children.

Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, argued on the Senate floor last week that making pre-K universal is a matter of fairness and equity.

"We have a situation in Vermont where pre-K is paid for by every property taxpayer, but depending on where you live, families do not have equal access to pre-K," Mullin said.

Students are coming to school not ready to learn and time is spent bringing them up to speed, Mullin said. Reaching children early, he said, may help reduce special education costs and in the long term reduce incarceration rates among teenagers.

The total cost per year is $26 million; the expansion of the program, included in the total, is $9.6 million.

The Vermont Senate passed H.270 after heated debate and a close vote on a crucial amendment (17-13) Friday that removed a trigger that would have delayed implementation of the law. On Monday, the Senate passed the bill (19-9), which will go into effect July 1, 2015. The House approved the legislation at the end of April.

Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee put a trigger in the bill and argued that the expansion of the program is too costly.

Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, chair of Senate Appropriations, said no one disputes the research on early childhood brain development, but she said her committee wants to see data measured against benchmarks for the program.

More broadly, she is concerned about growing pressures on the Education Fund and the impact the legislation will have on property taxpayers and the statewide rate which will go up by 20 percent over a three-year period through 2016. Kitchel characterized universal pre-K as an unfunded mandate.

"The question is whether we want, at this time, whether we want to accelerate spending," Kitchel said.

Gov. Peter Shumlin has said he will sign the bill. "My thanks to lawmakers for their hard work on this thoughtful plan to give all Vermont’s 3- and 4-year-olds access to high quality pre-kindergarten education," Shumlin said in a statement. "Investing in our youngest Vermonters is both the right thing to do and the smart thing to do. When children and families thrive, Vermont thrives. The vast majority of Vermont communities, 87 percent, already offer early learning. Now access to strong programs for young children will no longer depend on where you live. I am proud to live in a state that will provide every child an opportunity to arrive at kindergarten ready to learn."