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MONTPELIER — The Vermont Legislature’s efforts to make high quality child care more accessible and affordable cleared its last significant hurdle Friday, as the Senate voted unanimously to approve a bill expanding eligibility and financial assistance for families.

The bill, H. 171, funds the third year of a five-year plan to expand the state Child Care Assistance Funding Program (CCFAP), expanding eligibility and assuring that families pay per household rather than per child. It provides scholarships and loan forgiveness for early childhood educators and sets up studies into Vermont’s early education needs, and how the state can afford to meet them.

The bill assures families with income at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty guidelines will not have a co-pay for child care, and that families with incomes up to 350 percent of the guideline, adjusted for family size, will be eligible for a subsidy.

The bill’s combined $12.7 million in investments includes $5.5 million for CCFAP benefits and reimbursements; $4.5 million to upgrade the information technology system used to administer CCFAP; and $2.5 million for existing and new scholarship and loan repayment programs.

The Senate version made minor changes to the House version, including the order of its proposed studies. A systems analysis will be due by July 1, 2022, and a financial study examining the cost of expanding benefits to more families due on Jan. 15, 2023, in the Senate version.

Rep. Ann Pugh, chair of the House Human Services Committee, and Sen. Ginny Lyons, who heads the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, said Friday that they saw no need for a conference committee to reconcile the two versions.

On the Senate floor on Friday, and again in a news conference hosted by Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint and Speaker Jill Krowinski, lawmakers said the COVID-19 pandemic had erased any doubts about the state’s previously identified child care shortcomings. Both leaders hailed the bill as an important moment for the state, one that will help attract and retain young families and help the neediest Vermonters.

Balint said she recently heard from a constituent in Brattleboro who has been putting off starting a family because child care is so expensive.

“These are the kinds of stories I hear frequently,” Balint said. “if we want to make it possible for young families to stay here in Vermont, we have to figure out our child care crisis.”

“We have been dogged and focused and we have achieved something very exciting,” Balint added.

Krowinski thanked lawmakers, the advocacy group Let’s Grow Kids, and child care providers and workers for their work on the bill, and in helping the state through the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We want to make sure that every child in Vermont has access to crucial support. Right now we know there are families spending more than 30 percent of their income on child care even with financial assistance. It’s just not sustainable and it forces families to make tough choices including leaving the workforce,” Krowinski said.

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According to Let’s Grow Kids, a major proponent of the bill, three out of five Vermont children did not have access to quality affordable child care before the pandemic.

On the Senate floor, Lyons, D-Chittenden, Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Addison, and Sen. Christopher A. Pearson, D/P-Chittenden, spoke to the high cost of child care for families, and the low wages paid to educators in the field.

Hardy and Pearson described how they personally had to budget carefully to afford child care — Hardy, having to decide if she could keep her job, and Pearson describing the monthly cost as “a second mortgage payment.” Pearson also related how a teacher at his children’s child care left that job to work at a restaurant instead.

“She could make more money busing tables than taking care of my kid. That’s criminal,” he said.

The bill started with 95 sponsors in the House of Representatives, and ambitious goals. These included assuring that no family paid more than 10 percent of its gross adjusted income on child care and adding more money to the system by basing reimbursements on the cost of providing service rather than the average market rate.

When the cost of meeting all of the bill’s objectives at once proved too steep, the House Human Services Committee regrouped. It chose to expand eligibility for CCFAP and scholarships and loan assistance for workers immediately, and then study how the state might pay for the expanded benefits and reimbursement structure originally envisioned.

That approach met with overwhelming approval in the House, where it passed 146-1, and in the Senate.

“No Vermont family should have to choose between caring for children and paying the bills,” said Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, who presided over the Senate vote Friday.

“I commend the legislature for its action to address the urgent child care needs of Vermont families and I am hopeful the House will swiftly send the amended bill to Governor Scott for his full support,” she said.

The concepts in the bill are similar to a proposal offered by President Joe Biden in his speech to Congress on Wednesday. As part of Biden’s proposed $1.8 trillion American Families Plan, the federal government would invest $225 billion on subsidizing child care payments on a sliding scale, in a manner similar to the concepts in H. 171. Biden is also proposing $200 billion to provide free child care for all 3- and 4-year-olds.

“The child care policy discussions happening at the national level validate the work we’ve been doing in Vermont for years,” Let’s Grow Kids CEO Aly Richards said. “It’s exciting to see bold action being proposed at the federal level and it’s especially exciting to see Vermont moving legislation forward that gets us closer to funding early childhood education as the public good that it is.”

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


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