By Tiffany Danitz Pache, VTDigger
Vermont spends about $130 million on early education and pre-K each year, but it’s not enough, according to a Blue Ribbon Commission tasked with studying how to create and pay for quality care and schooling for children from birth to age 5. It will take an investment of somewhere between $283 million and $766 million to ensure every child has good care.
The Blue Ribbon Commission on Financing High Quality, Affordable Child Care recommends the state move toward universal early care and learning. It said it will require big shifts in current funding, governance and delivery. There is no way that investing more into the current delivery system will be enough to fix the problem, according to the final report issued on Dec. 9.
The commission suggests the Legislature make “immediate incremental investments in high quality, affordable early care and learning,” recommends a new design for the system, and puts forward possible funding mechanisms for a universal program.
“Developing and funding an early care learning system must be a top state priority of the next Gubernatorial Administration and State Legislature,” states the report.
The $130 million is now spent through state and federal investments in early care and learning. The Child Care Financial Assistance Program (CCFAP) helps 23 percent of families pay for child care; the rest of Vermont’s families with young children cover the full cost.
“Given the enormous complexities of this area, as well as immediate needs of children and families, this Commission recommends both short-term investments and a long-term transformational design of the future of the early childhood system,” states the report.
It estimates that care costs about $35,000 per infant and toddler and $15,000 per preschooler annually at child care centers. For home providers costs shift to roughly $41,000 for babies, $21,000 for toddlers and $14,000 for preschoolers. Calculations based on half of children being in center-based programs and half in home-based ones, serving between 25 percent and 100 percent of children from birth to age 5, resulted in costs of $360 million to $850 million.
The commission also looked at the early care subsidy system and modeled ways to increase access and affordability to quality programs by adjusting who is eligible. It suggests providing a 100 percent benefit to families earning up to $60,000 and tapering off support until families earn $180,000.
The final report is the result of 15 months of research gathered from national studies, public forums, surveys and testimony from experts. The commission is made up of 15 members, with representatives from the Agency of Education, the Department for Children and Families, business leaders, parents, and child care providers. It first convened in September 2015.
The commission’s purpose was to find out what high quality programs look like and make recommendations to the governor and the General Assembly on the best way to use “existing” public dollars to create more opportunities.
The commission first defined “high quality” care, then looked at the cost to providers to deliver these kinds of programs. It found that many providers operate at a loss — some directors and owners don’t collect a paycheck. To make care more affordable to families, some providers offer discounts and don’t collect the CCFAP co-payments. But doing so limits their ability to pay staff, buy supplies and implement improvements.
The largest cost driver in high-quality programs are wages and benefits, but many early child care workers make less than a short-order cook or store clerk, according to the report.
The commission recommends increased pay for program directors and lead teachers that would bring them up to that of public school teachers and aides.
Vermont’s current child care and early learning system lacks capacity and resources. Almost 80 percent of the state’s families don’t have access to high quality programs, according to the report. Vermont ranks among the least affordable states for caring for infants and 4-year-olds. If families are able find a place to send their infants and toddlers while they work, they pay anywhere between 25 and 50 percent of their income for child care.
The report frequently speaks of the complexity of a early childhood system that spans education, mental health, special needs and social services. But the findings underscore an urgent need for further investment to increase quality and access and to design and implement a new system for Vermont’s early care and learning.