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Vermont Legislature
Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Ready Or Not, Part 5: Doing The Math

Charlotte Albright
Cynthia Powers, grant writer for the Orange-Windsor Supervisory Union, is searching for funding for new preschool programs mandated by the state.

Ask any working parent: Child care can be expensive. While some low-income families qualify for subsidies, many middle-class families pay full tuition.

Between 2003 and 2012, rates have risen, on average, about 43 percent, from $140 to $200 per week. That’s one reason many public schools have started free half-day preschool programs, like the one at Lyndon Town School.

Charma Whitchurch, who has a master's degree in early childhood education, is the lead teacher.

“And I think Lyndon is an example of a town that is embracing preschool,” she says.

A few other school systems around the state are just now trying to figure out how to offer at least 10 hours of pre-kindergarten per week. That’s mandated by a new law that will take effect in 2015. In Orange and Windsor counties, for example, three out of five towns offer no preschool. Now they will have to start programs or partner with qualified providers.

In Orange and Windsor counties, three out of five towns offer no preschool. Now they will have to start programs or partner with qualified providers.

Those towns will have to hire teachers, design curricula, buy furniture — maybe even a new building, if they start a new program.  

Under the current funding formula, the state will cover only part of those new costs. So the supervisory union’s grant writer, Cynthia Powers, is looking for more grant money from sources like the Vermont Community Foundation, because she figures that the demand for preschool will rise sharply over the next few years.

In fact, parents are already asking for more of it now.

“Absolutely, and our other comment that we got in Royalton was, 'If our tax dollars are paying for it, which is the town portion, why can’t my child go?' And at the moment you can restrict it, you can say, we only have 20 spots,” Powers says.

Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR
Assistant teacher Sarah Bonnet, left, and Kristen Eckhardt line preschoolers up for dismissal from Lyndon Town School.

It’s still not clear if the new law will allow such restrictions. But even if public preschool does become universal for 10 hours a week, many working parents will still have to cover the cost of additional hours at school or in a private center.

Some private centers are struggling, too, especially in rural areas. 

Creative Minds Children’s Center, in Newport Center, has space for about 56 children.

Right now there are only 35, because not all families in this hardscrabble corner of the Northeast Kingdom can afford high quality private child care. Founder and owner Jody Marquis says she’s almost closed several times, as the economy has faltered and subsidies have become harder for parents to get.

“If you have two parents living in a home and they both earn $12 an hour, they don’t qualify for any help. If you can think about having to pay a $250 child care bill every week on that salary, the numbers just don’t work. They end up in the negative,” Marquis says.

Even Bryanne Marquis, the 21-year-old director of Creative Minds and the owner’s niece, could not accept a pay raise that would have meant losing her subsidy. So she gets paid only minimum wage to run a five-star, nationally accredited program. That’s the only way this young single mother gets the assistance she needs to keep her two children in a full-day program.

“It feels a little belittling to only be making $10 an hour and holding the position that I am," she says. "But it’s worth it to know that they can still come here and I can pay my bills."

So far, Creative Minds has been unable to interest the local school system in a preschool partnership that might bring in more families at lower cost. Jody Marquis hopes the new law and a new superintendent will remove that barrier. Still, she says, she’d like to see more public money flow directly to families.

"Parents need to be able to afford high quality child care in order to feel okay about working and to prosper within communities." - Jody Marquis, Creative Minds Children’s Center

“Parents need to be able to afford high quality child care in order to feel okay about working and to prosper within communities,” she says.

Julie Coffey directs Building Bright Futures, the non-profit group helping Vermont build an early education system. She also wishes subsidies for families and pay for child care workers were higher. But Coffey hopes that a $37 million federal grant will pump some money into local communities to help them build a pre-K network, in whatever way they choose.

“A lot of funding is going to support the local early childhood councils," Coffey says. "There are 12 throughout the state of Vermont and these councils are open to local leaders who care about their children."

But some workers in the trenches of child care wonder how much of this new money will  trickle down to them or families. Until they see the rules and regulations now being hammered out by state agencies, they say they won’t know if the promise of affordable high quality preschool for every 3- and 4-year-old will really come true in Vermont.

If it does, data show that kids who get a good early education are less likely to end up in jail. They are also more likely to attend college, get jobs and become productive citizens.

Advocates say that’s a bargain for everyone, in the long run.

This is the final installment in Ready or Not, a five-part series on expanding early childhood education in Vermont. 

Ready Or Not, Part 1: Kindergarten Is The Big Test

Ready Or Not, Part 2: Ensuring Pre-K Quality

Ready Or Not, Part 3: Reaching For 'Stars'

Ready Or Not, Part 4: Teaching The Teachers

Ready Or Not, Part 5: Doing The Math

Charlotte Albright lives in Lyndonville and currently works in the Office of Communication at Dartmouth College. She was a VPR reporter from 2012 - 2015, covering the Upper Valley and the Northeast Kingdom. Prior to that she freelanced for VPR for several years.
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