The high cost of child care poses a serious financial challenge for many families in Vermont. Next year, lawmakers are going to decide whether government should do more to help parents pay for it.
Lawmakers are known for their propensity to create study committees, and they often end up being a place where interesting ideas go to die.
But there’s one study commission that child care advocates have high hopes for. It’s called the Blue Ribbon Commission on Financing High Quality, Affordable Child Care. And when the group unveils its report later this fall, its recommendations will renew the debate over increased public funding for child care services.
“I think it allows people to start talking about things in a more meaningful, concrete way,” says Jessica Blackman, the administrator overseeing the work of the Blue Ribbon Commission.
The 16-member group has been meeting since late 2015, and its task is considerable. First, it has to determine how much it would cost to provide high quality child care to every child that needs it. Second, it has to figure out how much parents can afford. Finally, it will come up with financing recommendations to bridge the gap between the two.
“We know — this is well established — that providers aren’t making enough money to provide the kind of care that we’re asking them and expecting them to provide,” says Michelle Fay, associate director for Voices for Vermont’s Children, and a member of the commission on child care. “And parents are really struggling, especially toddler and infant care – it’s an incredible barrier for families.”
Fay and Blackman say the commission hasn’t yet determined the size of gap between cost of care, and parents’ means to pay, let alone what kind of financing mechanism should be used to cover the difference.
But she says the state has a fundamental decision to make.
“That’s really the question is, do we recognize early care as a public good, and are we willing to make the necessary investments to make sure that all Vermont kids have access to quality care?” Fay says.
Coming up with more public money for childcare subsidies has always been difficult in Montpelier. Gov. Peter Shumlin proposed a dramatic increase in funding in 2013. His plan would have pumped $17 million into subsidies across a range of income levels. Lawmakers rejected the plan, since the revenue would have come from a tax credit that benefits mostly low-income Vermonters.
Three years later, the need hasn’t gone away.
“There is no way of denying that as many resources as we have in the system, we recognize the need for more,” says Ken Schatz, commissioner of the Department for Children and Families.
Lawmakers allocated about $50 million this year for child care subsidies.
On Thursday morning, at a meeting of the Legislature’s Child Poverty Council, Bristol Rep. David Sharpe told Schatz that the state seems to be “losing this battle” when it comes ensuring affordable access to decent child care.
Schatz says he appreciates the frustration, but that he holds out hope.
“There is no simple answer here as we all know, and so I’m hopeful that [the Blue Ribbon Commission] will be able to come to together to make some proposals that will resonate,” Schatz says.
The Blue Ribbon Commission will unveil its financing recommendations on Nov. 1.