MONTPELIER, Vt. — A bill introduced in the Vermont House last week attempts to expand early childhood education assistance for Vermont families.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. David Yacovone, D-Morrisville, says change is long overdue. “This is an industry financed on the backs of women earning low wages,” he told Watchdog, “and it’s such an important program to our state.”
Parents struggle to pay for childcare, and providers have difficulty providing quality care at rates parents can afford, he said.
Brenda Kingsbury, a prekindergarten teacher in Rutland, acknowledged that “it is a struggle” making ends meet as an early educator.
Yacovone served as the commissioner of the Department for Children and Families in the Shumlin administration. He sees the bill, H.10, as a continuation of the Blue Ribbon Report. Former Gov. Peter Shumlin commissioned a group of lawmakers, parents and early childhood educators to investigate the industry and recommend a plan of action. In November 2016, the commission released its final report, stating the benefits of early childhood education and expressing a need for additional funding.
The report stated that federal assistance decreased too rapidly as income brackets increased, essentially punishing working families who managed to rise above the poverty line. Because of the decrease in assistance, these families ended up paying higher percentages of their income for childcare.
Alicia Bethel, who runs a home-based care center in Rutland, said that when children come to her with subsidies that only cover a portion of the cost, she often does not charge any co-pay. “These parents struggle enough. Even a co-pay would be difficult for them.”
H.10 aims to amend funding levels to 100 percent assistance up to 200 percent of the federal poverty line, doubling eligibility.
At this point, Yacovone does not have an accurate cost estimate or know where the increased dollars will come from. He said the Joint Fiscal Office is analyzing the proposal and should have that information in a few weeks.
In his inaugural address, Gov. Phil Scott pledged his support for early education, a point he also made known throughout his campaign.
“Investment in early education is a proven approach to reducing special education and health care costs,” he said. “If we want a system that draws people to Vermont, we can’t be paralyzed by fear of change — and we have been. How else can we justify spending so little on early education — and higher education — while we spend 25 percent of our entire state budget on the K-through-12 system?”
But Scott has also promised not to raise taxes. If H.10 advances, it is likely existing education funds will be reallocated, or that funds from federal block grants like the Childcare Financial Assistance Program will be used.
The Blue Ribbon Report suggests a funding increase of between $144 million and $347 million. Much of the increase would likely fall to the state, as Vermont was only allotted $9 million in fiscal year 2014 from the Childcare Financial Assistance Program grant.
“I know what it costs if we don’t do it,” said Yacovone. “Childcare costs push families into poverty at critical times of development for those children.”
Studies quoted in the Blue Ribbon Report anticipate returns of between $4 and $9 for every dollar spent on early education. These long term studies show reductions in special education needs, welfare and crime costs, along with increased tax revenues for working adults who had participated in the early education programs.
Other researchers refute such claims. David Armor, professor of public policy at George Mason University, believes policy makers are skewing data to support early education.
The Abecedarian and Perry Preschool studies, which the Blue Ribbon Report quotes, were highly intensive educational programs. Children as young as eight months old stayed in these educational programs through kindergarten, potentially completing five years of study. The programs also included home visits, parental involvement and low teacher-to-student ratios.
Studies that have analyzed common types of early education programs like Head Start have found less encouraging results. Children that participate in these short-term early education programs may have an advantage going into kindergarten, but the studies found that students leveled out by the end of the first grade.
Despite the debate over educational benefits, working parents still need affordable childcare. Kingsbury said that of the 45 students at her facility, only three were self-pay.
Kingsbury says giving children a safe space is one of her primary goals as an early educator. “Poor students consistently struggle with crisis and trauma. Not necessarily related to abuse, there are common stressors like not having enough food.”
Poor children with adverse experiences growing up are three times as likely to develop health problems like diabetes, heart disease and obesity. These health problems ultimately cost taxpayers, who fund Medicaid.
“I build a relationship with them. I try to give them love, caring, understanding, and trust,” she said.
Kingsbury cautioned that while childcare providers need more support, simply throwing money at early childhood education was not necessarily the way to go. “Getting us more money is a Band-Aid,” she said. For long-term help, “we need experts coming in and working with us in the classroom, training us (to do more with what we have).”