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Mass. House Votes To Maintain Day-Care Contracts

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Gov. William F. Weld of Massachusetts has run into resistance in the legislature over his plan to shift more of the state's system of subsidized day care from contracted slots to parental vouchers.

Child-care providers, who fear the proposal's effects on centers in low-income areas, won a round late last month when the House voted to maintain roughly the same number of contracts that have been in place to provide subsidized care, while adding some new slots to be filled through vouchers.

Administration officials have vowed to continue fighting for Mr. Weld's original proposal, however.

In fiscal 1992, about 70 percent of the state's subsidized child-care slots were filled at centers under contract to the state, while 30 percent were provided through parent certificates, or vouchers.

In his fiscal 1993 budget proposal, Governor Weld proposed cutting down on contracts and adding more vouchers to achieve a 50-50 split. A system weighted more heavily toward vouchers, the proposal said, would "enhance parent choice and flexibility and provide better service access and continuity for families choosing child care.''

"More parent choice is absolutely the primary goal,'' said Joseph Landolfi, a spokesman for the executive office of health and human services.

Centers At Risk

But many child-care providers and parents argue that cutting out so many contracted slots for centers that have historically served poor areas would jeopardize those programs and make child care less accessible.

In February, when the Weld administration rebid state contracts with subsidized centers for the first time in several years, it cut the number of subsidized slots served through contracted centers from 10,661 to 6,181. Centers that had been receiving contracts stood to lose from 40 percent to 60 percent of their subsidized slots, depending on their location, according to Elaine Fersh, the executive director of Parents United for Child Care.

"The centers who are sustaining major cuts [and] are serving low-income communities with no contracts will likely close, because they won't have the stability from week to week'' to remain solvent, she said.

"Those parents will basically lose out because there's no place to go,'' said Nia Alimayu, the founder of a network of inner-city child-care directors involving about 45 providers in the Boston area.

Foes of Mr. Weld's plan also said it would initially create confusion among parents about whether or where their children would be served.

The debate in Massachusetts is raising many of the same issues that have surfaced in other states that have sought to shift the balance of day-care subsidies from contracts to vouchers. A move to phase out contracts in Pennsylvania, for example, met with considerable resistance from inner-city providers, who charged that glitches in the voucher system were leaving classrooms vacant despite ample demand from parents. (See Education Week, March 11, 1992.)

While endorsing a mixed system of vouchers and contracts, Ms. Fersh of the Massachusetts parents' group argued that the shift should not come at the expense of "agencies who have been in the community a very long time and have the track record and the commitment'' to serve poor families.

Even when child-care subsidies were at their peak in the 1980's, the state reached only 40 percent of eligible parents, she said, adding that some $20 million in cuts in the past few years have pared that percentage to about a third.

'On Crutches'

"Most of the centers we operate are already on crutches,'' said Ms. Alimayu.

Mr. Landolfi noted, however, that Governor Weld's proposal to increase child-care funding by $10 million next year would boost the overall number of slots by 1,000.
While converting more slots to vouchers raises "a legitimate concern in terms of viability for some centers,'' he said, "we think it will be a very small number.''

"While contracted providers may experience changes in the child-care delivery system, families will benefit from a guarantee of continuity and wider service options,'' Mr. Weld's budget proposal stated.

House Bill 'Counterproductive'

While maintaining about 10,500 contracted slots, the House budget amendment would provide $2.4 million for 488 new slots to be filled by vouchers, bringing the total number of voucher slots to 7,758.

Under the measure, 57 percent of the subsidized slots would be filled through contracts and 43 percent through vouchers.

"Our position was that we would support a balance, so we're happy about that,'' Ms. Fersh said.

To maintain stability for parents while the state rebids the contracted slots it had already cut, the bill also requires the state to retain existing providers for those slots for 120 days.

Mr. Landolfi emphasized, however, that the Weld administration "is going to be working to see that that language does not remain'' when the measure moves to the Senate. The House measure "is counterproductive to everything we're trying to do,'' he said.

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