When I was running for office, the two issues I heard the most about were housing and child care. I’m pleased to report that both have been getting careful attention during the current legislative session.
With respect to the crisis in child care, we know from a survey by the Woodstock Economic Development Commission that our community, for example, needs more than 100 additional child care slots to meet current demand.
And the legislature knows that, with our declining birth rate in recent years, we have available space in our public schools to offer pre-K.
I was on the board of Rainbow Playschool when our district decided to offer limited slots for full-day pre-K at Woodstock, Reading and Killington elementary schools. As a private provider of public pre-K, we were worried that free, full-day pre-K would close our doors.
That was a reasonable fear. In the business of childcare, there are ratios that make certain rooms more expensive than others to operate.
Infant rooms (ages birth to 2), are the most expensive. The Child Development Division mandates one teacher per four infants. Two-to-3 years olds require one teacher to five toddlers. Pre-K classrooms require one teacher to 13 students.
Simple arithmetic shows that child care centers need the pre-K classroom to produce the income required to cover hard overhead plus administration. The younger classrooms barely pay for supplies and teachers.
And yet, Rainbow Playschool, amongst others, is still offering publicly funded pre-K today.
This is because our center-based providers are offering year-round and true full-day (work day) options for care. School-based pre-K operates roughly from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and requires additional providers, typically private, to step forward to offer pre-care or after care for our working families.
The school-based pre-K proposals under consideration in Montpelier could go far in eliminating the deficit in child care slots throughout the state, but I want to make sure we don’t end up eliminating any current private providers.
For those not familiar with the details involved, it’s important to point out that the legislative proposal is for pre-K in the public school to be play-based. We’re not talking about having pre-K children sitting all day at desks in public school classrooms.
Another important part of the legislation to come is that it will increase the state subsidy for child care, raising the income threshold to help more families pay for care at a rate that is more in line with the actual cost of care.
Right now, centers hold costs low so that families can afford it, but if they don’t charge parents what the center truly needs to operate, they tend to cut costs by paying less than livable wages. That, of course, can result in staff shortages.
The increase in parent subsidy is intended in part to offset the coming adjustment in wages, costs and fees that is inevitable if private providers are to survive.
I would like to see some close legislative scrutiny as we move into a mixed delivery system, with both school-based and private providers.
I support moving pre-K into the schools, using play-based education, but I want to be very sure this transition doesn’t cause providers like Rainbow to close their doors.