Editorial: ‘Early ed’ bill goes astray
It’s that time of the legislative session in which a slew of bills are introduced with well-meaning intentions, but proceed with undue momentum and not enough skeptical scrutiny. H.97 is one of those bills. Advertised as a way to strengthen the state’s early education day-care facilities, the bill already has the preliminary endorsement of Gov. Peter Shumlin, 53 representatives and 11 senators, and the support of former Gov. Howard Dean — and yet it may do more harm than good in its current version and is irresponsible for its lack of fiscal prudence.
The bill seeks to bring day care workers under the state employees union, creating a hybrid union workforce that falls under the state’s benefit umbrella even though the day care providers would not be state employees. The intent is to allow day care workers a chance to “collectively bargain” for higher wages and better training and education, as well as to receive the state’s health care benefits and pension. Subsidies to private day care providers have been discussed, but are not spelled out in the legislation.
The big picture objective is right on target, which is “to improve the quality of child care and early learning programs for Vermont’s children and families by establishing a new model of collaboration between the state and child care providers that recognizes the critical importance of early childhood educators in the delivery of high-quality early childhood education.”
No argument there. Most Vermonters understand the critical importance of early education (those few years before kindergarten) to the child’s academic success.
But H.97 does not address improving that system. Rather, within the 17 pages of this bill the sole discussion revolves around how day-care providers will become union members and how the collective bargaining powers gained in that move will affect state subsidies and the private businesses that employ child care workers. (And it is unclear how that might benefit those private businesses, or, in the end, bite them with increased wages, which, in turn, would be passed on to day care users.)
The bill omits any discussion about how childcare providers might gain more knowledge, skills or training. There is no discussion about the program reaching more families of children in need. There is no mention of how this new state collaboration will assure “high-quality” early education programs. And, importantly, there is no mention of cost. Not a single word.
Are we (or the 53 representatives, 11 senators and Gov. Shumlin) to believe that day care providers under the state employees union will see higher wages, health care coverage and state pension benefits with no cost increase to the state taxpayers or private users? Really? And, if not, how that does work in a budget year in which the governor and Legislature are seeking ways to cut $175 million in expenses? From a fiscal perspective, the lack of discussion of increased cost is a glaring omission that should put a screeching halt to any further momentum and make current supporters — of whom several are from Addison County — take a hard look at the bill’s consequences.
Furthermore, the bill’s thrust — to increase the professionalism of day care providers — may be creating a wasteful parallel system that our existing schools may be better able to provide. If the goal is to create more professional pre-K care and education of our youth, why not channel those programs into our existing school systems where courses can be better integrated and coordination is infinitely easier?
Finally, it’s important to ask where the money might come from to pay for increased wages, health care benefits and a state pension for the state’s day care providers (within the school system or outside it)? Since there is no budget surplus, the most logical source would be an addition to the property tax, in addition to higher fees for those middle-to-high income day care users not subsidized by the state. If that’s the intent, perhaps supporters of the bill should tell their fellow taxpayers.
With all that is missing from this bill, what becomes clear is that the bill’s intent is more to unionize day care providers than improve early education to Vermont’s children. That glaring weakness needs to be rectified soon, or legislators need to start anew with a bill that does not put the cart before the horse: In other words, propose a bill that first seeks to improve early education programs and then add the possibility of unionizing day care providers, but only if it improves the outcomes and if costs can be contained.
Angelo S. Lynn