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This commentary is by Ruth Hardy, a Democratic state senator from Addison County.
Last week, senators introduced S.56, legislation that would transform access and affordability of child care and early childhood education in Vermont.
The bill draws on recent child care systems and financing studies and builds on the strengths of the current system to ensure that each partner — families, schools, child care providers, and state agencies — has the resources and support they need to best care for our youngest Vermonters.
The bill would:
1. Significantly increase financial assistance for children at community and home-based child care programs, and after-school and summer programs. 2. Expand the current part-time pre-K program to a full-time, school-based program for all 4-year-old children in Vermont.
3. Increase compensation for early childhood educators and financial support for community and home-based child care programs.
4. Elevate and streamline state-level leadership and oversight of child care and early childhood education.
Child care financial assistance
The cost of child care has grown increasingly out of reach for many families and the child care financial assistance program has been a crucial safety net for families with low incomes.
However, many moderate- and middle-income families also struggle to pay for child care. S.56 would raise the annual income level for families to qualify for assistance — for a family of four, the income threshold would increase to about $127,500 in FY24 and $135,000 in FY25. Thus, more middle-income Vermonters would be able to afford child care for infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and school-age children in after-school and summer programs.
Financial assistance would be available on a sliding scale, with the goal that no family would pay more than about 10% of their income on child care. Families with incomes less than $55,500 for a family of four would receive full support and family payments would gradually increase as incomes rose.
Families that have not previously qualified for the child care financial assistance program, including new Americans, migrant workers and refugees, would qualify for financial assistance through a new program tailored to their needs.
Finally, application and waitlist fees would be waived for families who qualify for financial assistance. Making sure families can afford high-quality child care is the central element of S.56.
Universal public pre-kindergarten
In 2014 under Act 166, the Legislature passed what was called a universal pre-kindergarten program. S.56 expands and simplifies the current universal pre-kindergarten program, transforming a 10-hour-per-week program for some 3- and 4-year-olds into a full-time school program for all 4-year-olds.
School districts would provide this universal, play-based education for 4-year-olds, using the expertise of public schools in educating all children and the increased physical capacity in many schools due to declining enrollment.
Growing universal pre-kindergarten programs in public schools would expand pre-K opportunities in every region of Vermont and free up capacity in community- and home-based programs to offer child care to more infants and toddlers.
School districts without elementary schools could tuition their 4-year-olds to neighboring public schools or operate a pre-K program in another building, such as a vacant school or community center. Parents would not be required to send their kids to public pre-K programs and could continue to send them to community- or home-based programs and receive financial assistance.
Over the past several years, the Legislature has steadfastly worked to improve the equity of Vermont’s school funding formula to better fund school districts that serve students from low-income families, English language learners, and small, rural schools. Thus, providing universal pre-K through our public schools would ensure programs would be funded equitably and receive local community input.
Child care provider and program compensation
Early childhood educators have long been underpaid for the crucial work they do educating children and supporting families. Under S.56, educators who work in community- and home-based programs would receive compensation equivalent to that of public school early childhood educators.
The bill would also raise subsidy payments to child care programs to cover the total cost of care, including the increased compensation levels for educators.
Any program that receives state funding would have to pay their staff these higher wages in order to receive state support. In addition, current programs that provide scholarships and loan repayments to early childhood educators would be extended.
S.56 would also create a tax incentive for property owners who operate a child care program, or provide reduced-rent to programs to ensure appropriate spaces for child care.
Systems oversight and leadership
Vermont’s administrative oversight of child care and early childhood education is overly complex and state-level leadership is inadequate. S.56 disentangles the “dual-oversight” of school and community-based programs, making the Agency of Education responsible for school programs and the Agency of Human Services responsible for community- and home-based programs.
This separation reduces paperwork and increases program efficiency at the state and local level, particularly for child care providers. Most importantly, it simplifies the process of accessing child care for families who are already busy with the task of raising young children.
The legislation elevates early childhood education leadership in both state agencies. In the Agency of Education, a deputy secretary would oversee early childhood education, special education, and student support systems, recognizing the vital connection early childhood education plays in ensuring strong student support systems and early intervention for children with special needs.
In the Agency of Human Services, S.56 would refocus the Department for Children and Families on services and programs that directly impact the development and health of children and families, including high-quality child care, services for children with special needs, and maternal and child health.
The child care and early childhood education legislation lays out a blueprint for a major investment in our children, families and communities. Over the next several months, the Legislature will hear testimony from parents, child care providers, schools, employers and state agencies as we hone the proposals and determine the most appropriate funding mechanism to increase support for child care and early childhood education.
The cost of not making these investments would be too great for the children, families, employers and communities who rely upon child care and early childhood education. We must all work together for Vermont’s future.