Jul 30, 2016Times Argus
Hardly a day goes by that I’m not asked about my plan for addressing the rising cost of education in our state. For the most part, these questions are coming from a well-founded concern over rising property taxes. Certainly we should be confronting this, including reducing costs on the back-office side of our K-12 schools, and I’ve proposed a number of steps we should take. But I believe an even bigger question has unfortunately yet to enter the conversation: are we making the smartest investment possible when it comes to serving our youngest Vermonters?
Study after study shows that the first five years of life are critical, and really lay the groundwork for success in academics and relationships. Children who have a strong foundation in those first five years are most likely to succeed and reach their full potential as adults. This is why I fully support a renewed commitment by state government to invest in early childhood, including expanding access to high-quality, affordable child care.
The more we learn, the clearer it is that investing in early child education pays dividends. It helps a child be more successful later in life and reduces the cost of special education. Organizations like Let’s Grow Kids have done a spectacular job educating Vermonters and elevating this issue, rightly proclaiming that every child in Vermont deserves an equal start, and reminding us that investing in our children is the smartest dollar-for-dollar investment we can make.
The need is urgent. A recent study found that a quarter of Vermont’s children do not have the expected levels of social and emotional development, and one in six fail to develop the communications skills necessary to convey needs, participate in conversations with full sentences, or follow simple classroom instructions. This is driving up spending on special education at an unsustainable rate. Sadly, these numbers are not likely to improve on their own, especially as the first cohort of children born with opiates in their systems enters school.
Despite all the challenges they face, we know that parents across this state are doing their very best to nurture their children and provide the kinds of early experiences that will help them during this critical developmental window. But many working families still struggle to find quality affordable care that meets their needs. As a parent of three young children, I’ve personally felt the intense pressure of finding quality child care and I’m deeply aware of how far-reaching the consequences can be for both parents and children. Statewide, middle-class families with two income earners are spending an average of up to 40 percent of their annual income on child care. This simply isn’t sustainable for Vermont’s families.
The situation causes problems for Vermont businesses, as well. The consequences play out not only in our children’s development, but also for employers whose workforce is struggling to find the necessary child care so they can simply afford to work, let alone be productive on the job. With the stakes so high, state government can and should be doing more to support families with young children.
Thankfully, there is a path forward. Last year, the Legislature formed the Blue Ribbon Commission on High-Quality, Affordable Child Care, and this November, we’ll have the benefit of reading its report. That report should inform our policy in the coming legislative session and beyond.
We can all agree with the idea that investing in our most precious resource, our children, is the right thing to do. But to make a real difference, it will take the courage needed to act. The state must be willing to invest more in high-quality, affordable child care to give parents and families peace of mind, to treat child care providers with the respect they deserve — including raising the minimum wage to a $15-an-hour living wage — and to invest in our children and our future economic prosperity. As governor, I will lead the way on public investment in high-quality, affordable child care. We can’t afford to wait.
Matt Dunne is a Democratic candidate for governor.
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