Vermont would offer universal, full-day pre-kindergarten to 4-year-olds in every public school district in the state if a Senate child care reform bill introduced this week makes it across the finish line.
Without much fanfare, lawmakers on Wednesday unveiled S.56, a long-awaited legislative blueprint for an early childhood education overhaul. The legislation also would extend child care subsidies to those making up to 450% of the federal poverty level and increase reimbursement rates for providers to allow them to pay workers better. Reforms would be phased in over two years.
Since the passage of Act 166 in 2014, Vermont has given every 3- and 4-year-old’s family a voucher to pay for 10 hours a week of pre-kindergarten at the public or private provider of their choice. The newly introduced legislation would eliminate those universal vouchers and instead require every school district to offer free, full-day pre-kindergarten to every 4-year-old child living within its borders. School would not be compulsory for pre-kindergartners, and income-eligible families of 3- and 4-year-olds could still use state child care subsidies to go to a private provider instead.
Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Addison, one of the bill’s lead sponsors, said she wanted to go the public school route for pre-kindergarten because it “ticked all of the boxes.” Eliminating vouchers and delivering a full-day service through schools was cheaper than beefing up subsidies to private providers to achieve an equivalent outcome, she said. It also would guarantee universal access and offer better pay for workers, she said.
Public education officials and unions in Vermont have long supported expanding pre-kindergarten to full-day care. Jay Nichols, the executive director of the Vermont Principals’ Association, said his organization remained fully onboard. A full-day program for four-year-olds would be particularly helpful for children with disabilities and those who need other special services, Nichols said.
“The earlier we can get our eyes on those kids and provide them support, the better,” he said.
But the inclusion of full-day pre-kindergarten in public schools is expected to be a major bone of contention for child care advocates, because pre-kindergarten vouchers have become a critical subsidy for private child care centers.
Aly Richards, CEO of Let’s Grow Kids, the leading child care advocacy group in the state, said in a written statement Wednesday that it was not “clear” to Let’s Grow Kids how the proposal would preserve a delivery system that combines public and private providers and “maintain critical support for families.”
“We look forward to learning more, working with lawmakers and will continue to advocate for a full solution that ensures best practices and the best interest of kids 0-5,” she added.
Hardy acknowledged it’s a valid concern. But she argued that lawmakers have no intention of putting private child care centers out of business and instead want to give them the financial support to offer more of the care that’s needed.
As public schools and private providers compete for pre-kindergartners, she said, families struggle to find spots for their infants and toddlers, who are more expensive to care for. And full-day pre-kindergarten wouldn’t go into effect until child care centers were set to receive substantially higher reimbursement rates from the state, she added.
“I don't think it would actually do what I think Let's Grow Kids is concerned about,” Hardy said. “I think it would actually provide more resources to the child care centers so that they can focus on the age groups where we are really hurting for slots.”
Efforts to shore up the state’s ailing early childhood education system have been years in the making. Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden Southeast, another of the bill’s lead sponsors, said she was glad that lawmakers were finally prepared to make significant investments in the sector.
“We're actually talking about investing in child care in a way that we haven't in the past,” she said. “So I'm very excited about that.”
But how much, precisely, the bill would invest is still to be determined. Full-day pre-kindergarten would increase education spending by about $11 million to $20 million, according to a preliminary analysis produced by the Legislative Joint Fiscal Office. An estimate of how much it would cost to increase child care subsidies as contemplated by S.56 has not yet been produced.
And until those numbers are crunched, the legislation is expected to remain silent on another key detail: how much families who receive subsidies would pay toward tuition. S.56 would eliminate all copays for families that make up to 185% of the federal poverty level ($55,500 for a family of four), but does not say how much families making more than that would have to contribute.
Advocates have pushed to cap the cost at 10% of a household’s income for those eligible for subsidies. Both Hardy and Lyons said something within that range remains a goal but cautioned that more modeling would have to come in before any specific commitments were written into legislation.
“A lot of the direction will depend on how much it costs and what happens with other bills that are interacting with it,” Hardy said.
Another item that remains to be determined? How much providers would be expected to increase wages in order to receive higher reimbursements from the state. S.56 would charge Building Bright Futures, a public-private partnership tasked with improving child well-being, with coming up with pay scales over the next year. Those would be adopted into law as part of the rule-making process.
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