State Budget Targets Childhood Programs

Vineyard Affordable Child Care Project Faces Bleak Future if Romney Cuts Remain in the Proposed Budget

By MANDY LOCKE

Five years ago, Kim Angell found herself one step away from being a welfare mom.

"My husband disappeared. I had no job, three children under the age of six, and it was January," Ms. Angell said this week. "I had no money to pay my mortgage, let alone child care."

Stepping out of full-time motherhood into the working world for the first time in three years, Ms. Angell had no one to watch her two toddlers during the day or her kindergartner after school. That's when she found Vineyard Affordable Child Care Project (VACCP) - a program that offers subsidies to working families struggling to meet day care costs.

"VACCP rescued me. I would have had to sell my house and leave the Island for sure. That change would have been so detrimental. It was paramount to my children's well-being at that point that they not be uprooted," she added.

Another Island mother of two-year-old twins, escaping an abusive relationship, found herself facing a day care bill of $450 - $50 more than her weekly paycheck. She, too, connected with VACCP and began paying only $25 a week for her two children.

The sliding scale subsidies are a lifeline Island parents will no longer have if Gov. Mitt Romney pushes his budget through the state legislature.

VACCP promised to deliver $277,000 to the pockets of nearly 100 Island families this fiscal year to help them manage day care bills averaging $200 a week. Just last week, Judi O'Donoghue, VACCP child care funding coordinator, sent letters to the 60 families now receiving aid to inform them just how much money they will not receive in weekly supplements between now and June 30. The adjustments follow an immediate 11.5 per cent cut to the program by the governor in early February - an attempt to reconcile a $650 million gap in the current budget cycle.

This is just a preview of severe cuts expected to hit early childhood education in the coming fiscal year.

In his proposed budget, the governor entirely eliminates funding for the Community Partnership for Children (CPC) - an umbrella grant covering direct child care subsidies like the ones Ms. Angell receives as well a host of financial supports for the Island's 10 child care centers and 13 of the family day care centers. Preschool teachers tapped into about $100,000 this year for capital improvement grants, continuing education scholarships, licensing assistance, seed money for new centers and curriculum packets. That allocation was already down from more than $200,000 just two years ago.

Governor Romney also slashed funding for the Massachusetts Family Network - an annual grant through Martha's Vineyard Community Services which provides support groups for young families. A monthly newsletter to all 750 Island families with children under the age of five, breastfeeding support volunteers and a range of discussion groups will all likely disappear without the $170,000 grant. The Family Center at the high school - a haven for parents to meet and mingle with other young families - remains untouched for this year, covered under the final year of a five-year grant.

News of the deep cuts reached hundreds of Vineyard households this week. Parents and early childhood professionals barraged state legislators with phone calls, e-mails and letters this week - demanding level funding for CPC and the Family Network.

Everyone seems to have a story of how their family's stability will be shaken if the governor succeeds in stripping these $74 million in programs as part of his proposed $22 billion budget.

Jennifer Weiland couldn't afford the classes she needs to run a licensed day care service. Rex Jarrell shaped his role as a single father through discussion groups he launched with other single dads through the Family Network. Funding for nearly every bookcase, coat rack, chair and piece of playground equipment in Katrina Araujo's home as well as the expansion to her family day care center came from CPC grants. Amy Sullivan learned how to breastfeed, understand sibling rivalry and potty train her two children through conversations with Family Network staff and other young mothers. One of Donna Creighton's day care students already dropped a day because his parents couldn't afford full-time care after a reduction in supplements from VACCP.

Many mothers say they would have lost their sanity in the dead of winter without Family Network programs.

"We're one of the families here who jumps between seasonal rentals. The Family Center and the network programs are the reasons we stay," said Kristina Narkiewicz, mother of four-year-old Zale. "My social life after I had my son was going to the post office or the A&P."

Early childhood professionals fear these cuts will undermine progress in educational standards for preschoolers.

"Kids are expected to do a lot more than they used to when they reach kindergarten. Preschool is the foundation for the rest of their education. It's all about readiness, and these kids fare better once they've had these social experiences in preschool," said Ms. O'Donoghue, noting that only families earning more than $87,000 for a family of four (125 per cent of the state's median income) will be able to continue paying the $200 weekly day care bill.

"This funding has raised the bar for child care professionals entering the field. Over the last 25 years, I've seen a huge difference in the quality of day care programs. We're going backward," said Joanne Lambert.

"This was seen as a prevention program, conceived during education reform with the idea that you must support parents in their parenting because they are their children's first teachers," said Susan Markwica, coordinator of the Family Network grant through Community Services. Ms. Markwica, herself a single mother, resigned from her post this month to secure more stable employment, knowing that cuts to her program are likely in this budget climate.

These cuts arrive at a time when the existing money did not nearly cover the need on the Vineyard. VACCP has a waiting list of 40 families desperate for child care subsidies. And practically all of the Island's day care facilities have families waiting for vacant spots in the program.

Governor Romney's proposed budget shifts all of CPC and Family Network money out of the Department of Education to the Office of Child Care Services - a program that licenses family day care centers and gives child care vouchers to families earning below 50 per cent of the median income, less than $32,000 a year for a family of four. That program, which designates where parents must send their children and pays facilities willing to accept the vouchers only half their normal rate, has a six-year waiting list for families in need of subsidies.

While the governor's proposed cuts have not been passed by the legislature, Cape and Islands Rep. Eric T. Turkington said given the bleak financial situation in the state, the programs may not fare any better in the legislature's revisions.

"These are very extensive cuts to things that matter tremendously. Our numbers aren't going to be any cheerier. The final budget won't be anything we'll be proud of or happy about," Mr. Turkington said.

Parents see the budget cuts as a major blow to the already fragile finances of Island families.

"It feels very scary to be a young mother right now. These cuts tell me that young families are not valued in the state," Ms. Sullivan said.