Soundings : Snafu at DEEC
Word came in October from DEEC, the state Department of Early Education and Care, that the agency faced a large internal deficit as well as the prospect of funding cuts - and had decided to balance its budget by squeezing the providers who serve our children.
For the past decade, the state's grants to Martha's Vineyard have been administered by the Vineyard Affordable Childcare Project. With their deep knowledge of the community, VACCP coordinators Pat Ingalls and Judi O'Donoghue have run a lean program that makes the most of the dollars available for working Vineyard families who need help with daycare and preschool expenses.
Because state policies have forced a focus on the neediest families - those who require the largest subsidies to meet the costs of daycare - the pool of families served on Martha's Vineyard has shrunk from about 100 to 50 over the past decade. But even against the backdrop of this trend, the news from the state agency this fall was shocking:
- As of November 3, no new families were to be enrolled in the program that delivers financial aid on a sliding scale toward the costs of daycare.
- CPC funds would no longer be handled by local administrators with ties to the community, but by regional caseworkers. This means phasing out VACCP and telling Islanders to arrange for their services, such as they are, from an office on the Cape.
- Worst of all, even the few families still getting aid will receive sharply reduced subsidies that meet an artificial limit set by the state - nothing near the actual rates charged by Martha's Vineyard providers.
According to Ms. O'Donoghue, who coordinates monthly payments from VACCP to nine private preschool centers and 10 family childcare providers on Martha's Vineyard, the rates for daycare and preschool here range from about $42 to $55 per day. The state has declared it will pay just $26.30 for a day of childcare in a home and $33.25 for a day of preschool.
This forces Martha's Vineyard's preschools and home daycare providers to choose between two painful options: Either try to provide this essential service at a cost between 20 percent and 52 percent below their published rates, or tell 50 Island families that they can't accept their children any longer.
This week, all 19 providers who work with VACCP told DEEC that its new reimbursement scheme is unacceptable - that they cannot afford to care for children at these low rates.
To understate the case greatly, providing childcare is no road to riches. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, childcare workers at daycare centers across the United States in 2007 earned an average $8.49 an hour. You can earn more straightening cans of beans in the aisles of a supermarket than looking after human beings in a preschool. There's precious little wiggle room in a preschool's budget; when you ask it to cut costs, you're taking money from caregivers who aren't earning much to begin with.
So what is the state saying to the Vineyard preschools - most of them nonprofits - who protest that they can't make ends meet with these new rates? The answer could make you laugh or cry.
"What they're saying," says Ms. O'Donoghue, "is okay, we understand, and we'll be in touch with you so we can place your families somewhere else." Never mind that for the families being helped by VACCP, "somewhere else" is a ferry ride away.
"It's just crazy," says Cindy Andrews, director of Rainbow Place in Edgartown, a nonprofit preschool that has three subsidized children in its enrollment of 32. "They can't solve this by sending our kids to Mashpee. There's no way you're going to bus these three- and four-year-olds every day."
Across Massachusetts, this new DEEC policy means that in every region, some preschools and daycare providers will likely try to fashion themselves as centers of last resort for families receiving state help. They'll sacrifice quality to meet the state's price point, and we'll end up with a two-tier system of childcare - better preschools for families who can pay, inferior ones for those who can't.
Even if it were possible for one Island preschool to reinvent itself as the low-cost alternative, Ms. Andrews says, it would be wrong: "I am strongly against the concept of sending all the kids on vouchers to a single school. That's going back 20 years to segregating people by income."
Martha's Vineyard preschool directors I spoke with this week resent having to choose between accepting an impossibly low rate of reimbursement for their services and telling Island families that their kids are no longer welcome. "What I'm afraid the state is banking on," says Ms. Andrews, "is our goodwill." In fact, even as providers across Martha's Vineyard protest the new rates, Rainbow Place has told its families on subsidy that their children may continue attending preschool until this contract year ends on July 1.
It's hard to look a mother in the eye and tell her that your preschool can no longer care for her child. "I can't do that to a family," says Ms. Andrews. It's easier to displace children from daycare centers across the state with edicts issued from 51 Sleeper Street in Boston. From that safe distance, it's possible to forget that somewhere, on the receiving end of every policy decision, are real people who benefit or suffer.