Affordable child care on the Vineyard has been suddenly and severely curtailed due to state budget shortfalls.
Already, no new Island children are being funded; as of Nov. 3, even eligible working parents are being placed on waiting lists indefinitely, Vineyard child care advocates confirmed this week. Because of a multimillion dollar deficit, the state department that handles early childhood education has unilaterally frozen child care assistance for low-income families.
Separately, the budget cuts Gov. Deval Patrick announced last month mean that the Vineyard Affordable Child Care Project will no longer be able to fully reimburse preschools and family day care centers for those children already enrolled in subsidized care.
Until now the Island affordable pro-ject had local control over its subsidy funds; it reimbursed early education providers for full published tuition rates when they enrolled a low-income child whose family paid on a sliding scale. Now the state is taking control of the subsidies; state officials will pay caregivers a uniform state rate of reimbursement that is significantly lower than what Island preschools charge, typically about $600 to $700 per month.
“There’s going to be a huge impact on families here very soon,” said Vineyard Affordable Child Care Project funding coordinator Judi O’Donoghue, adding: “This will have dramatic negative effects on the quality and access to early education and care programs for three and four-year-olds.”
Already she has had to tell qualifying families making new applications that she had no indication when and if state funds would become available for them to get child care assistance. “People have been left in the dust,” Ms. O’Donoghue said.
All 10 Vineyard preschools and about a dozen home-based day care providers have contracts with Vineyard Affordable Child Care Project, which serves about 100 families. By Dec. 1, those providers will begin receiving the state rate rather than full tuition. Many providers learned of the change only this week and have yet to determine whether subsidized children will be allowed to continue at the lower rate for the remainder or the year, and then whether they will be accepted again next school year.
“The reality of the state’s reimbursement rate is such that programs will not be able to afford to accept the rate and will no longer be able to serve families with subsidies,” according to a letter sent to providers this week by Ms. O’Donoghue and the project’s resource-finance coordinator, Pat Ingalls.
Before now Island families were able to choose the preschool that worked for their child and family, without regard to cost. Now, the Vineyard Affordable leaders said in their letter, “Families will have few, if any, options for early education and care programs, increasing the segregation of low-income children into one or two low-cost programs.”
The award-winning Vineyard Affordable project also has had to immediately cut almost in half the professional development funds that helped providers obtain licensing and accreditation.
The letter expressed concern that the changes are a collective step backward from the state’s commitment to quality.
The Vineyard Affordable project itself is staring down decimation; Ms. O’Donoghue has reduced her own hours from 25 to 20 per week and expects that after Jan. 1, when the state assumes full control of subsidies, her job will become redundant.
In a memorandum to the acting commissioner for the commonwealth’s Department of Early Education and Care, Amy Kershaw, the president of the Massachusetts Association of Community Partnerships for Children, Kelty Kelley, wrote: “The shifting of subsidy management away from local councils to a state or regional level will leave many at-risk families foundering in search of the support they need and currently receive at the local level.”
Under the new plan, Island families who apply will be entered online into the state’s centralized waiting list. If their name comes up and funds are available, parents will deal with an agency on the Cape to arrange the care subsidy.
“There is a geographic isolation here they don’t understand,” said Ms. O’Donoghue of the state officials, adding they also had taken no account of the higher cost of living and providing services in a place such as the Vineyard. Over the past several years the state had reduced the Vineyard project’s ability to fund working parents who made above 50 per cent of the statewide median income, though even families making more than that amount still struggled to afford care here. So the Vineyard Affordable project served about half the number of families it did when Ms. O’Donoghue began there.
“A lot of families we deal with don’t have the time and the skills to get on the phone and advocate for themselves,” Ms. O’Donoghue said, adding they also may not have easy access to the Internet or transportation to the Cape. “The situation here is so much different, local control was huge for us, and these changes will be very detrimental to families here.”