Jun 08, 2017St. Albans Messenger
Emerson Lynn
The traditional childcare provider model seems to be falling apart, and the effects are pushing Vermont, and counties like our own, into a full-blown crisis. Last year, Franklin County lost 42 registered programs and two childcare centers. Richford and Alburg have lost half their providers. There are essentially no available slots for working parents with infants and toddlers.
 
The collapse in the number of providers is problematic. It affects employment. It affects our schools. It affects our ability to grow and prosper. And it affects, long term, our social structure.
 
The reasons for the collapse vary, but primarily the positions don’t pay enough to make them something people will pursue, and there is a necessary shift from simply being a provider of care to having the expertise to teach as well.
 
Of the 42 providers who closed their doors, 11 of them left for better jobs, nine moved out of state, four closed because of stricter state regulations, four retired, with the remainder leaving for other reasons, according to Michelle Trayah, the childcare resource development specialist for the Northwestern Counseling & Support Services [NCSS].
 
NCSS has stepped in as the county’s facilitator, drawing the public’s attention to the issue and its severity. In a Messenger story Wednesday the depth of the crisis was put simply by Deb Grennon, director of the Franklin Grand Isle Bookmobile: “The decline in childcare accessibility really stresses out families and it’s affecting how our kids are developing and the quality of care that they get. It’s even affecting whether people work, how they work, where they work and even when they’re going to have another baby or if they are going to have a baby at all.”
 
This is not a Franklin County problem; it’s a Vermont problem.
 
And it cannot be solved by simply sliding a little more money into the same tired system. In fact, the only upside to losing 42 registered child care providers is that it’s forcing us to recognize the crisis and to look for common sense solutions.
 
That search has to begin with the understanding that the resources are available, and that the potential savings and societal value are so pronounced that access to high quality childcare should be placed at the base of the state’s economic development pyramid. We can’t get from here to there without it.
 
Consider, for example, that 42 percent of the children born in Vermont have their births paid for by Medicaid. Follow those children. What percentage of those children end up going to school on Individual Education Plans? What percentage of them are cared for by dollars disbursed by the Agency of Human Services. What percentage of a school’s costs are devoted to special education? What is spent on mental health services?
 
Consider that as a state we spend more on a per pupil basis for our schools than almost any other state.
 
Consider that the teacher-pupil ratio nationally is about 16 students per teacher. In Vermont it’s roughly eight students per teacher.
 
Consider that one of the key challenges facing the sustainability of the Vermont State College system is raising the matriculation rate from high schools to secondary education.
 
Consider that employers can’t find enough workers adequately prepared for today’s workplace.
 
All these needs have their roots in Vermont’s ability, and its willingness to address our early childhood needs.
 
Think about this. If this is not addressed, then, to Ms. Grennon’s observation: Wouldn’t a couple think twice about having a child? Or two? Why would a company locate here, if their employees would be so stressed over childcare availability?
 
Vermont’s Agency of Human Services, with its 3,700 employees and a $2.5 billion budget represents about half of all of state government. How do we ever address its sprawl if we don’t deal with the health and educational needs of our youngest citizens?
 
We spend $1.6 billion each year on education. We spend roughly $5 billion on health care. And when we add the $2.5 billion spent each year on the Agency of Human Services that’s a little over nine billion total dollars, money that is, for the most part, spent not in the first years of a child’s life, when it’s at its most formative stage, but from that point forward.
 
Think what we could save. Think of the good that could be done.
 
Figuring this out is very doable. The money is there. The resources are there. The need is there.
 
What’s necessary is the leadership to articulate the vision, and the tenacity to follow through. Gov. Phil Scott had the right message with the opening of the legislative session. Our early education needs are central to the state’s ability to prosper. His approach was flawed, and it’s something to which he needs to return. It’s hard to think of any investment of time, energy and resources that would have a greater return.
 

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