Bill seeks to shore up childcare accessibility


SEN. RUTH HARDY
This is the first time where I feel I’ll truly be able to balance the scale between making care affordable for families, and meeting the needs of my teachers. That scale is often very off-kilter. — Linda January, Otter Creek Child Center executive director

MIDDLEBURY — The Otter Creek Child Center in Middlebury currently serves a young family that’s receiving a state child care subsidy and an in-house scholarship, yet is still on the hook for more than $1,100 in monthly tuition for their two children.

The parents are caught in that precarious income zone where they make just enough not to qualify for more generous child care benefits, thus making their financial road more bumpy.

Well, that local family and thousands of others could get a substantial boost in child care assistance through bill H.171, the so-called “Act Relating to the Governance and Financing of Vermont’s Child Care System.” The legislation — which passed the Vermont House by a 146-1 margin in March and unanimously passed the Senate on April 30 — incudes more than $8 million to boost child care subsidies and help cover educational expenses of child care employees.

“It’s exciting,” Otter Creek Child Center Executive Director Linda January said of the bill’s widespread support. “This is the first time where I feel I’ll truly be able to balance the scale between making care affordable for families, and meeting the needs of my teachers. That scale is often very off-kilter.”

H.171 is actually the third in a five-year legislative effort to improve and expand state support of child care services, according to Sen. Ruth Hardy, a Middlebury Democrat and vice chair of the Senate Health & Welfare Committee that worked on the bill.

“Hopefully, we will have seen a huge improvement and more generous financial support for child care programs at the end of these five years,” Hardy said. “COVID put a wrench into it, like it did with everything else. But it also sort of highlighted why child care access and affordability is so crucial for so many reasons. In some ways, (COVID) helped the progress (of child care), because it displayed how important it is, when (the lack of it) created a lot of setbacks for the system and for families.”

According to advocates, H.171 would help stabilize the state child care system now, and place Vermont on a path to more access and affordability for families, as well as “fair compensation and adequate supports” for early childhood educators. It also advances “well-coordinated and transparent governance, administrative and accountability structures and resources” for the industry, according to Let’s Grow Kids, a Vermont nonprofit whose stated mission is to “ensure affordable access to high-quality child care for all Vermont families by 2025.”

Among other things, H.171 would:

•  Increase, by $5.5 million, Vermont’s Child Care Financial Assistance Program (CCFAP). This funding would expand eligibility and financial support for child care benefits and would reduce out-of-pocket costs for Vermont families that currently participate in the program.

•  Invest $2.5 million to support and strengthen Vermont’s early childhood education workforce through student loan repayment and scholarship programs.

It should be noted that the aforementioned $8 million combined would be built into the state’s general fund budget as a recurring commitment.

•  Call for two separate studies to identify new governance strategies and sustainable funding for an affordable, high-quality child care system for Vermonters.

The broader strategy includes improving the state’s child care database that provides critical information on how many slots are available and where they’re located.

“One of the reasons last year was so difficult for our system is that we didn’t have that database, so things were being done sort of scattershot,” Hardy noted. “Having this system, which I believe will be up and running by Oct. 1, will help immensely with the analysis and the tracking and being able to link families with child care spots.”

Part of the end-game here, according to Hardy and other supporters of H.171, is to ensure families don’t spend more than 10% of their income on child care.

Hardy, who has made child care quality and affordability one of her top legislative goals, underscored the importance of young children getting off to a good start intellectually.

“It’s when their brains are developing most quickly,” she said. “If they’re able to have access to high-quality care at a young age, then they’re more likely to be set up with being well-prepared for school and being well-socialized, being able to be interactive and productive kids.”

Affordable, quality child care will also allow more people to fill the multitude of job vacancies in Addison County and beyond right now, Hardy added. The Independent last Thursday provided extensive reporting on the need for more job applicants.

“It’s really good for families to be able to have that child care, especially to enable women to go to work and have a job and a career as well as young children,” she said. “So it’s good for our economy — being able to go to work and take a job requires that you have child care. And a lot of people haven’t been able to do that during the pandemic, because child care has been more limited.”

Child care provider January has long lobbied for increased state and federal support of child care services. She was among those who recently testified on H.171 before Senate Health & Welfare. And she’s pleased to see the legislation have smooth sailing to the desk of Gov. Phil Scott.

With greater subsidies for parents, centers like Otter Creek would be able to direct scholarship dollars to families who don’t qualify for state assistance and are still struggling, or invest them in their teachers and programs.

And January intentionally uses the term “teachers” to describe her staff, because that’s exactly what they are. Otter Creek Child Center currently serves 44 children and has a staff of 13 full-time teachers, three part-timers, and a handful of subs.

“Our teachers have degrees, they’re working on credentialing, they have the energy and heart of anyone you’d see in a K-12 teacher,” January said. “The difference is, they don’t have the pay and the benefits, and I think this bill is the first step in that direction in getting our teachers on the same level as public school teachers.”

While H.171 would be a great help, there’s more work to do to give child care the long-term boost it needs, according to January.

“Work still needs to be done to continue the re-design of the child care financial assistance program to get to a place where no family is paying more than 10% of their income for child care, and to get the rates the state is paying to reflect the true costs of care, so that programs can increase wages and offer (better) benefits packages,” she said.

GOVERNOR’S STANCE

The Independent reached out to Gov. Phil Scott to get his take on H.171 and the chances he’ll sign it if it the General Assembly volleys it his way.

Scott spokesman Jason Maulucci said the governor has consistently supported child care initiatives since taking office, while pitching “significant funding increases…  (that) have not always received the full request.”

In the past, Scott has proposed a dedicated funding mechanism for early care and learning, most notably a tax on online sales collected from marketplaces that the state has not previously tapped, according to Maulucci. It was estimated such a tax could generate an additional $7-10 million per year, the governor’s spokesman said.

“Had the legislature supported the proposal, it would have actually been over $26 million this year,” he claimed.

Still, the governor believes H.171 “has come a long way” since first drafted, and is thankful lawmakers have endorsed some of the changes his administration has proposed, according to Maulucci.

“The governor will continue to work with lawmakers and other partners to expand access to affordable and accessible childcare,” he said.

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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Addison County Independent