Burlington launches child care scholarship program

The city is now accepting applications for a scholarship program that will help families access childcare for young children.

Based off a program in Minneapolis, Burlington Early Learning Initiative’s “First Steps Scholarship Program” will provide 20 Burlington families with a scholarship for children to attend a high-quality child care facility. Children born between Aug. 31, 2017 and July 1, 2019 qualify.

Mayor Weinberger, city counselors and other community leaders outlined the new program at a press conference last week.

Applications for the first year of the scholarship are now open. Families with an income of less than 65 percent of the median for the region — which equals $59,670 for a family of four — are eligible.

The goal of the program is to address fundamental issues of different families’ ability to access quality child care, and the lack of investment in childcare overall. Mayor Miro Weinberger said that with more investment in programs like this, there will be more returns in public dollars.

“There are a variety of ills that high-quality care can impact. Research has shown that for every dollar invested in public child care, there will be about a three-dollar return, and numerous benefits down the road,” Weinberger said.

The program also aims at closing the achievement gap between students. Weinberger’s office cited research showing that early childhood education is linked to “a wide range of social, economic, health and education-related outcomes.”

Not all kindergarten students are on the same playing field when it comes to the first day of class, Weinberger said at the press conference.

“Some children aren’t ready for kindergarten, and that affects the entire school. We are working to fix that problem,” Weinberger said.

City Councilor Jane Knodell noted how important it is for local government to close the achievement gap.

“I believe that closing the achievement gap is the single most important thing local government can do to create an economy that works for everyone,” Knodell said. “It is the equitable thing to do and it is the right thing to do. We want to make sure Burlington children are competitive for future jobs.”

The $210,000 for the program comes from the city budget and will not increase taxes on Burlintonians. The mayor and the city councilors plan to include this program in the budget for the next two years, and hope to continue it indefinitely. The city also plans to “leverage significant additional funding from other private, institutional, and public sources,” according to a press release. Officials also have had, and will be having, conversations with the medical center and businesses for investments in the program.

The program will be working with high-quality child care facilities in the Burlington area. A facility is considered “high-quality” if they receive a four or five star rating, based off of the Step Ahead Recognition System, or STARS, Vermont’s quality assessment system

The selection will be based on “program quality, team qualifications, learning environment and other factors assessed in the STARS rating,” said Let’s Grow Kids Interim CEO Janet McLaughlin. “We want child-care providers that work for the family, and are most convenient for their life.”

The program will award 20 applicants with a scholarship. If more than 20 families apply, then the decisions will be based off of a lottery system. Officials said there could possibly be funds to support up to three additional spots.

“I hope we have 100 applicants for 20 spots to ultimately raise that number,” said City Councilor Dave Hartnett. “I’ve seen too many single moms who have asked for this program. We need to get everyone involved, the YMCA, private day care, everyone.”

Once the family is awarded with the scholarship, the money will go straight to the provider and won’t impact their tax return. The scholarship is for one year, and families may apply again as needed.

For the next application season, Hartnett said the city will review families’ use of the program when considering whether to renew the scholarship.

“We want to focus on results and will look at things like kindergarten readiness, if the family is actually going, and what is happening to providers,” Hartnett said.

Hartnett also hopes other towns in Vermont will consider similar measures to address the need for child care.

“I hope other towns are watching because every kid should have the opportunity [to child care and education], no matter their income or where they come from,” Hartnett said.

McLaughlin and Let’s Grow Kids is calling for statewide investment in kids.

“We have a child care crisis. Parents can’t afford to pay more, and educators can’t afford to make less. Our kids deserve it,” McLaughlin said.

Click here to read this story on VTDigger.org.