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Preschool Dollars - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Preschool Dollars

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BURLINGTON, Vt. -

Act 166 is pitting some parents against child care providers in a battle over tuition and the interpretation of a hotly debated law.

"It is a huge part of families' budgets," said Tara Sharkey, Shelburne parent.

Sharkey spends thousands of dollars on day care every year. With her older child about to turn 3, she was looking forward to a break on preschool tuition.

"These types of things can be really challenging when they don't go the way you're anticipating," said Sharkey.

A new law in Vermont called Act 166 is supposed to provide parents of 3- to 5-year-olds with 10 hours of free prekindergarten classes 35 weeks of the year. Kids must be enrolled in a prequalified program run by a public school district or a privately operated center. The idea is to give more children access to high quality early childhood education.

"It should really sort of be a mutually beneficial arrangement for the provider and for the families," said Jill Remick from the Vermont Agency of Education.

Remick says the universal pre-K law went into effect July 1, but the state is still working out the kinks.

"This is new territory for a lot of places," said Remick.

"Families, like us, can't just send for 10 hours," said Sharkey.

Sharkey's daughter attended Carolyn's Red Balloon in Colchester full time. Under Act 166, her child would still be entitled to the publicly funded 10 hours, but it would come in the form of a $3,000 discount on her total child care bill, or so she thought.

"It's just to us seemed like a very large sum of money," said Sharkey.

Sharkey says she was hit with sticker shock when she received the center's 2015 tuition rates. 

The cost of preschool care at Carolyn's Red Balloon increased from $910 per month during the 2014 academic year to $1,172 for 2015, a $262 monthly hike. 

"That was something we couldn't afford," said Sharkey.

Sharkey says at the same time, tuition for other age groups only increased by $5 a month. So she emailed the center's director to ask why, saying she was "appalled" with the way preschool tuition was increasing "to basically negate the $3,000 subsidy parents would receive under Act 166."

In response, the center's director, Carolyn Riley, called it a "business decision" and said she would have to make changes to meet mandated requirements, then kicked Sharkey's daughter and infant son out of the program.

"No one else got their child care terminated. So I think we were the first ones to speak up, so maybe that was detrimental to us," said Sharkey.

We reached out to Riley. She did not want to speak to us on camera, but sent us a statement, saying, "Part of the reason for our need for an increase in fees is the increased cost of providing the high quality care expected in Act 166 ... while Act 62/166 is a step in the right direction for early education it is not a solution for the high cost of child care."

"This is something we're starting to see. Different providers are handling this potential tuition funding very differently," said Remick.

Remick says the goal of the bill is to provide access and make care more affordable, not to increase the financial burden on parents or providers. But Act 166 does require participating centers to:

  • Be accredited by the National Association for Education of Young Children (NAEYC)
  • Have at least a 3 STAR rating by DCF with an approved plan to reach 4 STARS
  • Employ at least one licensed early childhood educator

All these mandates cost money. But centers like Carolyn's Red Balloon which already received Act 62 funding or the precursor to universal pre-K should have those big expenses covered.

"Our attorneys and DCF are definitely looking into the interpretation of the law," said Remick.

Remick says the state has received a handful of complaints about at least two child care centers jacking up rates in advance of Act 166. But charging more is not illegal. There is nothing in the 16-page bill that prevents or even discourages child care centers from raising their rates. It's a free market and Vermont cannot regulate tuition.

Reporter Jennifer Costa: Could this be a loophole of how providers could line their own pockets? 

Remick: If it is, I think that would come back this legislative session. I know that was not the intent of lawmakers.

Rep. Sarah Buxton, D-Royalton, who sponsored the bill, says she's "committed to ensuring that private child care providers are not using a public tuition payment to fund anything other than 10 hours of prekindergarten education."

Research shows kids who get access to quality pre-K classes perform better in school and later in life. The state says investing in early childhood education now will pay off in the long run.

There are currently 104 prequalified pre-K programs run by public school districts and 150 privately operated centers in Vermont that qualify for Act 166. Many are still struggling to navigate the changes and what that will mean for their bottom lines.

"I think there are still a lot of unknowns as far as the agreements between the districts and the providers. The rules are still being developed," said Remick.

The Agency of Education plans to work with school districts to ensure their contracts with providers demonstrate why tuition rates may be changing.

"This is public education dollars and so it's totally appropriate for the district to ask those questions," said Remick.

In the meantime, frustrated parents like Sharkey hope they're not left footing the bill while the state and providers work it out.

"We're hoping that other private centers throughout the state don't do this because I think that would be detrimental to Act 166," said Sharkey.

WCAX News heard from other parents at Carolyn's Red Balloon. They did not want to go on camera fearing if they spoke up, they too would lose their child care.

The Agency of Education admits parents and providers are living in a gray area right now. Although Act 166 is law, the rules don't go before the board of education until August.

Next week, WCAX is taking a deeper look at Act 166 and its impact on child care centers, small and large.

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