BURLINGTON — Mayor Miro Weinberger is hoping to put $500,000 toward increasing poor families’ access to child care and early childhood educational opportunities.
Weinberger was joined by Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe and nonprofit leaders to announce his intention to use a half-million dollars in payments from utilities for grants that will allow child care programs in the city to increase their offerings.
The focus will be increasing the number of slots available for newborns and toddlers, which experts say is a critical time for brain development.
“By investing in our youngest children today, we will reap a better educated, healthier and more just tomorrow,” the mayor said.
Officials highlighted disparities in access to quality child care tied to family income, which contributes to an “achievement gap” down the line between students from poor families and their wealthier counterparts.
Fifty percent of third-graders in Burlington who are eligible for free or reduced cost lunch read at grade level, versus 70 percent of those who are not eligible, according to a white paper written by consultant Jessica Nordhaus.
Research links quality child care to reduced K-12 school costs, higher lifetime earnings, lower rates of criminality and better health, according to speakers at Thursday’s news conference. The higher earnings accrue to both children who receive the early childhood care and to parents who, as a result, are able to re-enter the workforce.
Aly Richards, CEO of the Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children, which made a $122,000 grant to Burlington in 2015 to develop an early learning initiative, said the challenges the city and the state face in making child care universally available are great. It is nonetheless her organization’s aim to realize that goal by 2025.
Eighty percent of infants and toddlers in Vermont lack access to quality early childhood educational opportunities, Richards said. In Burlington, that figure is 85 percent, she added.
Families in Vermont that do have access to child care pay 40 percent of their household income toward that care, while at the same time, the average child care worker makes $25,000 annually, according to Richards.
“There’s a lot of rhetoric about putting kids first,” said Kyle Dodson, executive director of the Burlington YMCA, a child care provider, “This is an opportunity to put our money where our mouth is.”
Weinberger said that details of the grant program are still being worked out, but money would only go to child care programs that receive four or five starts from a state ranking system, or those with “a clear plan to achieve” at least four stars.
Further, only families at 200 percent of the federal poverty line will be eligible for grant-funded slots in child care programs. Using 2017 guidelines, that equates to a family of four making $48,600 or less.
The $500,000 in capacity grants for child care programs is included in Weinberger’s proposed fiscal year 2018 budget, which the City Council will consider in June.
The money comes from payments in lieu of taxes made by utilities that operate in the city. Those are annual payments, making them a funding source that can be dedicated to Burlington’s early learning initiative, Weinberger said. The mayor added that he’s hopeful the city’s commitment will help leverage additional public and private money to boost the low-income child care program.
The utility payments were previously split between the city and the school district — with $1.4 million going to the schools — but in 2014, the state decided that practice ran afoul of rules preventing municipal revenue from going toward educational expenses.
The city still provides $400,000 of that money to the school district, which uses it for non-education related expenses. Another $500,000 goes toward youth programs at the Fletcher Free Library, the Parks and Recreation Department and for school resource officers through the Burlington Police Department.
The other $500,000, which will now be used for the early learning initiative, was previously being used to stabilize the city’s finances, Weinberger said, and it is part of the reason the city now has a $6 million surplus.
Correction: Aly Richards is the CEO of the Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children.