Coalition tracks impact of COVID-19 on child care

Stephanie Spring picks up her 2-year-old daughter, Solveig, from the Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development, in Brattleboro, on Sept. 1, 2020.

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MONTPELIER —Slowly but surely, the Human Services Committee of the Vermont House of Representatives worked through a thicket of details and emerged Tuesday with unanimous consent for a bill proposing significant changes for child care in Vermont.

The bill, H. 171, passed 11-0 after the committee spent the better part of the day hammering out language governing proposed studies and “mini-studies” to determine the cost of proposed changes, and how the state might pay for them.

The original bill proposed a three-year ramp-up of the state’s existing Child Care Financial Aid Program (CCFAP) with the goal of no family paying more than 10 percent of its household gross income, and increasing pay and benefits for employees.

When the cost of those initiatives proved daunting — an estimated $300 million, according to state Secretary of Administration and Finance Adam Greshin — the committee pivoted to making the changes it could afford, and committing the proposal’s potential cost drivers to studies.

They include an analysis of the current child care system, due Sept 1, 2022, and the financial impacts of basing family financial aid on enrollment rather than attendance and limiting family payments to 10 percent of annual gross income due July 1, 2022.

But the committee also adopted language that would expand CCFAP eligibility in fiscal 2022 to families with gross incomes up to 350 percent of current federal poverty guidelines. Families at or below 150 percent of the poverty line would have no co-pay at all.

Also included, and funded in Gov. Phil Scott’s budget proposal, are scholarships and loan forgiveness for early childhood educators, and a technology upgrade for the Department of Children and Families computer system to make the CCFAP changes possible.

Committee members Reps. Dane Whitman of Bennington and Kelly Pajala of Londonderry were pleased with the outcome.

“I will be glad to see that we can move forward with something that can be done now,” Pajala, I-Windham-Bennington-Windsor, said. “I’m glad we didn’t just focus on the big pie in the sky picture.”

“I think it was an ideal outcome,” said Whitman, D-Bennington 2-1. He noted that the unanimous vote came with support from members of all political parties, and from advocates and administration stakeholders.

“I also think we did a great job of balancing short-term action with long-term vision,” Whitman said. “That sets us on track to really start investing in a child care system that reflects the value it has to Vermont.”

Administration officials again raised concerns that the Oct. 1 date prescribed in the law for the new IT system could cause trouble if the system isn’t ready. The committee, which heard that same concern two weeks ago, addressed it on a suggestion from Rep. Francis McFaun, inserting a “”notwithstanding” clause allowing for extenuating circumstances.

Whitman was among committee members who spent part of their Town Meeting break week working on the bill so it could be finalized Tuesday.

“Honestly, it’s what I hoped the legislative process would be like,” Whitman said. “It was bringing a lot of different people together with a big goal and reaching a set of compromises that make something that works for everybody. I think child care is something we all agree is a priority. Taking the time to work on it makes perfect sense.”

Another significant change in bill language was expanding the scope to after-school care for children up to age 12. That was a topic of debate for the committee, but McFaun, Pajala, and fellow Reps. Theresa Wood and Taylor Small voiced concerns that leaving out after-school care would produce studies that didn’t address the full financial picture.

“I think it’s what needs to happen if we are going to make bigger decisions in the future,” Pajala said of the studies. “And I am glad with the decision that look at Child Care from birth to 12 instead of just the early care system ... Our kids need care and activity and attention and fun things to do all of the time.”

Pajala is hopeful that the supports for tuition and loan repayments for early childcare educators make it to the end.

“I think that is one of the harder nuts to crack even just to keep the current system functioning well. We need a pipeline of people who are prepared to do this early childhood development work,” she said.

Rep. Jessica Brumsted, the bill’s primary sponsor, told the committee she was proud of the way it tackled a complicated subject despite legislating via Zoom.

“This bill represents a step forward,” Brumsted said. “We have set a goal in terms of making child care more affordable and taken some concrete steps” for affordability and workforce support,” she said.

The bill is now headed for the House floor, where it is likely to be referred to the chamber’s financial oversight committees, as well as to the Commerce and Economic Development Committee, before being presented for a vote.

Let’s Grow Kids, a non-profit advocacy group dedicated to improving child care availability, affordability and quality in Vermont, said it was grateful for the committee’s efforts.

“The legislation is comprehensive and thoughtfully crafted to make meaningful investments in child care right now, while establishing a process and infrastructure to make even greater progress in the years to come by lowering costs for families and enhancing compensation for early childhood educators,” CEO Aly Richards said.

“We have a long way to go still, but are very encouraged by today’s unanimous vote and the 95 co-sponsors who have already signed on to the bill,” she said.

Greg Sukiennik covers Vermont government and politics for New England Newspapers. Reach him at gsukiennik@reformer.com.


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