May 18, 2016VT Digger
Tiffany Pache
Krista Huling is a social studies teacher at South Burlington High School. She is also a member of the State Board of Education, and she is pregnant. Huling says she has been searching for child care for her coming infant but can’t find it. She has, however, already secured a preschool spot for when her little boy or girl turns 3.
 
“I don’t even know the gender of my baby, but I know it is going to Poker Hill,” Huling said. Poker Hill School is a preschool in Underhill, about a 20-minute drive from Huling’s home in Cambridge. During her search for child care, friends urged her to apply for pre-kindergarten as soon as possible to make sure her child would have a slot.
 
A new report that analyzes supply and demand for child care, by the Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children as part of its Let’s Grow Kids campaign, shows that Huling’s situation is not unusual. The analysis found that Vermont doesn’t have enough capacity to meet the likely need among children younger than 3.
 
In fact, almost half of Vermont’s infants and toddlers likely to need care do not have access to a state-licensed or -registered day care program, according to the “Stalled at the Start” report. Nearly 80 percent don’t have access to early care that’s deemed high-quality, and in some parts of the state that number shoots up to 98 percent.
 
Huling’s family moved to Cambridge because it is close enough to commute to Burlington but far enough away that housing is more affordable. The town is in Lamoille County, where close to 70 percent of children younger than 6 belong to families where all the available parents are in the labor force, according to the report. It breaks down access by county to illustrate the particular issues facing families across Vermont.
 
Based on 2014 data, there were 352 infants in Lamoille County likely to need day care. There’s room for 145 infants in early care centers that are licensed or registered with the Child Development Division of the Vermont Department for Children and Families, with 62 slots in what the study considered high-quality early learning centers.
 
High-quality programs were defined by the researchers as those that participate in the state’s quality rating system, known as Step Ahead Recognition System, or STARS, and maintain a rating of four or five stars (five is the highest). This means the programs have staff educated in early childhood learning and provide play-based activities that enrich and promote learning and development.
 
But Huling said she hasn’t even focused on the STAR system to select day care, because she can’t even find a two-star program that has slots open.
 
“While the star system might be helpful, we are just looking for an opening right now. Sometimes there are no options and you have no choice,” she said.
 
Vermont has 18,247 children under age 3, according to the latest population estimates from the Vermont Department of Health. With 70 percent of the state’s children younger than 6 living in families where all the parents work, the study estimated that 12,846 infants and toddlers need some kind of child care.
 
Nearly 60 percent of babies who need day care don’t have access to any regulated programs, according to the report. When access to high-quality programs was factored in, that increases to 85 percent lacking access, “with many counties facing numbers higher than 90 percent.”
 
“Our state’s shortage of high-quality child care programs is a challenge for Vermont’s children and families,” said Reeva Murphy, deputy commissioner of the Child Care Division. “Science tells us that positive interactions with caregivers support healthy brain development during a child’s first five years of life. That’s why it is so important for young children to have access to quality early care and learning programs during the most formative years of brain development.”
 
Let’s Grow Kids is a public awareness campaign focused on high-quality affordable child care in Vermont. It worked with Vermont Birth to Five, the Vermont Department for Children and Families Child Development Division, the Vermont Health Department’s Maternal and Child Health Division, and Building Bright Futures to develop the analysis.
 
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