Several Cape towns now provide subsidies to families to cover the cost of preschool. For many parents, this is a major expense, running thousands of dollars a year. And it's a necessary one, since more often than not, both parents must work in order to meet the region's high cost of living.
Last week, the Orleans School Committee heard details of Eastham's Family Support Program, which covers preschool costs for approximately 40 children. The $490,500 program, which Town Administrator Jacqueline Beebe said was endorsed by a wide margin of voters, also includes funding for workforce housing and school and summer lunch programs for children. Members of the Orleans committee were impressed and agreed to work toward adoption of a similar program in their community. Noting the difficulty Orleans and its neighbors have in retaining young families – mostly due to escalating housing costs – the cost pales beside the benefit of retaining and vibrant and diverse community, members said. “I think our town is ready for this,” said committee member Hank Schumacher.
Chatham is ready as well. Town officials previously rejected this approach, opting instead to provide $75,000 for childcare vouchers despite a recommendation from the Chatham 365 task force that the town underwrite all childcare and preschool costs for local families. The town should reconsider this decision and investigate the Eastham program, which provides an off-the-shelf model for assisting local families with an expense that can be more than a mortgage. Chatham is already working on other ways to address the workforce housing shortage – town meeting in June authorized filing special legislation to allow the town to levy a surcharge on real estate sales of $2 million or more, with the revenue to fund affordable and attainable housing programs. Back in 2019 it was estimated that subsidizing preschool for all eligible Chatham children would cost about $200,000 annually. As we said then, that would be a bargain. The makeup of the select board hasn't changed since then, but the situation has. Chatham Elementary School's future is tentative, and this summer's labor shortage shows what happens when the people who fill those jobs can't find housing. Even if board members still don't support a preschool subsidy program, the expenditure should be put before voters, who we believe are ready to help their neighbors. We also suggest that Harwich look into a similar program, though its higher number of kids would make it more expensive. Then again, if the proposed changes to the regional school agreement are approved and the town saves $600,000 by not having to subsidize Chatham Elementary School, it might make sense to redirect that money to help out its struggling families.