Dec 12, 2016St. Albans Messenger
Elaine Ezerins
Note: This story appeared on the front page of the St. Albans Messenger on Monday, 12/12, 2016. It is reposted here in full with permission of the Messenger. 
 
ST. ALBANS — Vermont’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Financing High Quality, Affordable Childcare released its report Friday after 15 months of research into the state’s current system of early care.
 
The commission, comprised of representatives from the Agency of Education and the Department for Children and Families as well as business leaders, parents and child care providers, was statutorily charged with determining what high quality programs look like, determining family affordability for that highest level of quality and putting forth financing recommendations to the legislature and incoming administration.
 
The commission consulted with state early childhood experts, examined national studies, heard from Vermonters at five public forums across the state and worked with a research consulting team.
 
The first half of the report focused on defining high quality childcare and explaining why it matters: to children, to parents and to the economy.
 
High quality early childhood programs strive to realize the promise of each child, according to the commission. The programs focus on child health and safety, early care, education and child development, family and community engagement, and leadership and management systems.
 
The commission said high quality programs should want to move up in STARS, Vermont’s quality recognition system for childcare, preschool and afterschool programs, and achieve high quality standards as indicated by five STARS, accreditation from the National Association for the Education of Young Children or the National Association for Family Childcare or participation in the federal Head Start program.
 
Too many Vermonters lack access to high quality, affordable childcare, according to the commission. Of the more than 36,000 children, from birth to age five, that live here, nearly half of all infants and toddlers likely to need care do not have access to any regulated childcare program, according to Let’s Grow Kid’s Stalled at the Start report. About 79 percent of infants and toddlers in Vermont who are likely to need care also lack access to high-quality programs, according to the report.
The commission said investment in early care and learning benefits children, parents and the economy.
 
Childcare provides critical learning and development for the future generation of Vermont, according to the commission. In the first few years of life, 700 new neural connections are formed every second, laying the foundation upon which all learning, behavior and health depends, according to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. Before the age of five, 90 percent of brain development occurs.
 
The federal report, The Economics of Early Childhood Investments, states the benefits of high-quality child care for children include a narrower achievement gap between those from higher and lower income families, an increase in cognitive and achievement scores and earnings later in life, less involvement with the criminal justice system, and fewer remedial educational services.
 
The commission said the absence of positive relationships and a nurturing environment, which can be supplied through childcare, can result in a young child experiencing prolonged, negative stress. It said this toxic stress, such as neglect or abuse, could have an adverse effect on a child’s healthy development.
 
The Adverse Childhood Experiences study, which looks at the impact of negative early childhood experiences, states that adverse childhood experiences have long-term associations with adult risk behaviors, health status, and diseases.
 
According to Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, adverse experiences can be overcome in the earliest years of a child’s life. “It is easier and less costly to form strong brain circuits during the early years than it is to intervene or ‘fix’ them later,” according to the center.
 
Research has also shown when young children have a supportive relationship with a trusted, caring adult early in life, whoever it may be, the relationship can help mitigate some of the negative impacts of adverse experiences.
 
All in all, the commission said it is “critical” young children have access to supportive, nurturing relationships and environments to support healthy development.
Access to affordable high-quality childcare is also beneficial for parents, allowing them to be better workers by enhancing their ability to attend to and provide for their families, according to the commission.
 
A national poll of parents with children in childcare, conducted by National Public Radio, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health researchers, found that for nearly a third of parents who pay fees for childcare, the cost caused a financial problem for their household. About 70 percent of those parents said it has caused a “very” or “somewhat” serious problem.
 
Alleviating financial stress and increasing confidence in childcare potentially improves the overall wellbeing of a family, according to the federal report The Economics of Early Childhood Investment.
 
The poll also indicated that a majority of parents believe childcare has a “very positive” impact on their overall well-being and their relationship with their child. In addition, it found programs that offered parental support increased confidence and reduced stress in parents.
 
Investments in early care and learning will benefit the economy, according to the commission.
 
Vermont’s working population is aging and the labor force is not growing as fast as the number of jobs, according to economist Art Woolf. The commission said investments are needed in areas that will bring new jobs to Vermont and keep young people in the state. An investment in early care and learning could create a more favorable work environment for working families with children, according to the commission’s report.
 
It said childcare is commonly cited as one of the major barriers to work. Research shows in the U.S. at least once in a six-month period, 45 percent of parents are absent from work because of childcare issues. During the same six-month period, 65 percent of parents’ work schedules are affected by childcare issues an average of 7.5 times, according to Child Action Solutions for Employee Childcare.
 
Investments in early care and learning yield high returns, according to the commission. Studies show that for every dollar spent on high-quality early care and learning programs, there is a return of $4 to $9. According to the Center on the Developing Child, early learning programs can also reduce special education, welfare and crime costs and increase tax revenues from program participants later in life.
 
The commission said a small savings in special education costs could have a significant impact on educational spending in Vermont, which has nearly doubled since 2001, although student population has declined.
 
The study, “The economics of inequality: the value of early childhood education,” warns that it would be short-sighted to assume investments in early childhood programs benefit only the participants and not the public who pays for them. “Whether one thinks it is the moral thing to do or whether it is the role of government, it makes economic sense to invest in increasing productivity; to spend less early on to prevent much greater costs later,” according to the author, J.J. Heckman.
 
The commission said investments are also needed on the “supply side.” It said many parents expressed their difficulty in finding options for childcare, which in turn put financial stress on their family since they were unable to work. In many parts of the state, access to any program, let alone high quality or affordable, is an issue, according to the commission. 
 
This article was posted with permission from the St. Albans Messenger. This was the first of two stories examining the Blue Ribbon Commission report. The second will look at the cost of high quality care for families.
 

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