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Every week, Vermont Public's politics team provides a succinct breakdown of some of the biggest issues at the Statehouse.

Capitol Recap: Lawmakers lean on public schools to solve child care crunch

Two people standing in a hallway at the Statehouse with their arms around each other.
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
Addison County Sen. Ruth Hardy, left, and Chittenden County Sen. Ginny Lyons are co-sponsors of a child care bill that would expand the role public schools play in Vermont's child care system.

Lawmakers want to ease the child care crunch by sending most of Vermont's 4-year-olds into the public school system.

Bills introduced in the House and Senate this week would effectively add a new class to schools, in the form of “pre-kindergarten.”

Vermont passed a “universal” pre-k law in 2014, but Waterbury Rep. Theresa Wood said “there’s nothing universal about it.”

Every week, Vermont Public's politics team provides a succinct breakdown of some of the biggest issues at the Statehouse.
Laura Nakasaka
Vermont Public
Every week, Vermont Public's politics team provides a succinct breakdown of some of the biggest issues at the Statehouse.

“We have varying differences from children really having no access to pre-k depending on where you live, to in some cases having full-day pre-k… in other parts of the state,” Wood said.

The Senate legislation would require all school districts with an elementary school to provide full-day pre-k to all 4-year-olds in their system; districts that don’t operate an elementary school would have to pay for their 4-year-olds to attend pre-k in another district.

“And make it just a public school pre-k program — kind of like kindergarten except with 4-year-olds,” Addison County Sen. Ruth Hardy said. “It would be a play-based program. It would be in all our public schools across the state.”

Hardy says the Legislature projects that 80% of 4-year-olds in Vermont would participate in the expanded pre-k model envisioned in the legislation.

The House bill differs slightly from the Senate bill in that it offers districts the option of paying for 4-year-olds to attend a private home- or community-based child care center, instead of requiring that all funding be used for public school programs.

“We did not want to eliminate the private pre-k aspect to it because in some parts of the state that could be, for a variety of reasons, the only thing that’s available,” Wood said.

Hardy said lawmakers are unified in their belief that Vermont has a child care crisis. She said it’s also clear that lots of elementary schools have plenty of capacity to take in more kids.

“It is just really unreasonable to expect people to pay between $13,000 and $20,000 a year for child care."
Chittenden County Sen. Ginny Lyons

By leveraging the capacity that exists in public schools, she said, Vermont can address the shortage of child care slots in the system at large.

“So it’s sort of this dual thing where we are opening up spaces in our public schools for the pre-k 4-year-olds, and then opening up spaces in the community-based and home-based programs for the younger kids, thereby increasing the capacity of the entire system,” Hardy said.

Education officials in Vermont have offered a generally enthusiastic response to the pre-k concept, though many districts would have to add staff and retrofit physical spaces to accommodate the younger students.

Wood said the Legislature will also pursue funding for school construction projects so that districts can prepare for the new educational landscape, which, under the legislation, would begin in the 2024-2025 school year.

“These spaces for our very young children are not spaces that would be similar for a sixth grader,” Wood said. “They’re different learning spaces, so there’s likely to be needed some capital construction associated with this.”

Wood said using public schools to house 4-year-olds during the work week is also a more cost-effective way to do child care.

“It’s another reason to do the pre-k change, because we impact a whole host of young children at a lesser cost than it would cost up in the child care system,” she said.

Lawmakers sitting at a table in a committee room in the Statehouse.
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
Waterbury Rep. and chair of the House Human Services Committee Theresa Wood, second from left, photographed in February 2023.

The Agency of Education didn't respond to request for comment about the House and Senate proposals.

The pre-k expansion is just one aspect of a legislative proposal for which fiscal analysts have yet to come up with a price tag.

The House and Senate also want to expand child care subsidies for the parents of infants and toddlers, and ensure that at least some of that money finds its way to the pockets of employees providing frontline child care services.

Read more at Vermont Public: Report says Vermont will need to spend at least $179 million to make child care affordable for all

Gov. Phil Scott presented lawmakers with a plan last month that calls for $56 million annually in new child care subsidies.

The Legislature wants to go further, by extending eligibility to thousands of middle-income families, and increasing subsidy levels for lower-income parents.

Right now, the cut off for subsidies is about $105,000 a year for a family of four. Under the House and Senate plans, a family of four making as much as $135,000 a year would qualify for child care subsidies (Under Scott’s plan, the new cutoff would be $120,000).

Also under the Legislature’s plan, any family of four making up to about $55,000 a year would have all their child care costs covered by the state.

“It is just really unreasonable to expect people to pay between $13,000 and $20,000 a year for child care,” Lyons said. “It’s just not affordable and not sustainable.”

In order to address the issue of worker pay, the House and Senate bills say that in order for child care providers to be eligible to enroll children getting subsidized care, they would have to increase wages for their frontline staff.

Scott insists the Legislature can significantly increase child care subsidies without raising taxes. Democratic leaders Legislature disagree, and contend that if elected officials siphon money away from the existing state budget to fund the plan, then they’ll inevitably shortchange other important government programs and services.

As it stands now, however, lawmakers aren’t at all aligned on how to raise the money. Some influential senators think the payroll tax is the obvious and best source to tap. Many influential representatives in the House are strongly opposed using a payroll tax to fund child care investments.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Peter Hirschfeld:


The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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