Jun 24, 2015VTDigger.org
Amy Ash Nixon

A lack of high-quality early learning opportunities for Vermont’s young children has led the Vermont Legislature and Gov. Peter Shumlin to form a Blue Ribbon Commission on Financing High Quality, Affordable Child Care.

The governor signed the language for the new commission into law last week.

The commission will collect information on the state of early childhood learning opportunities across Vermont and will recommend to policymakers and the administration steps for improvements for both access and funding for high-quality programs.

The commission will be chaired by the Secretary of Administration or his designee and includes the secretaries of Education and Human Services, along with a cross-section of Vermont policymakers, child care providers, parents and business representatives to be appointed by the governor.

“The science is clear — 90 percent of a child’s brain is formed by the age of 5. That is why I am so proud of all we have accomplished on behalf of our youngest Vermonters over the past few years,” Shumlin said in signing the bill.

“But we have more to do. Vermont families need to know that they will be able to find high-quality care for their children and that they won’t have to hold multiple jobs just to pay for it,” he said.

According to Let’s Grow Kids, a statewide public education campaign for early childhood issues, the new commission will start meeting by July 15.

The commission will report its findings by Nov. 1, 2016.

Julie Coffey, executive director of Building Bright Futures, a nonprofit which serves as Vermont’s Early Childhood Advisory Council, said, “It’s pretty simple, there just aren’t enough high-quality early learning settings available for the number of young children in Vermont. Plugging the holes of the child care system isn’t working.”

“The Blue Ribbon Commission is coming together at the right time, as is the growing demand by families for high-quality, accessible, and affordable early learning and development for all children, no matter who their parents are or where they live,” Coffey said.

Samantha Eayrs, a South Burlington mother, can’t afford to have a second child because of the cost of child care, she said.

“The cost of child care has forced my husband and me to make some tough choices that we never thought we’d have to make when it comes to planning our family,” Eayrs said.

The Eayrs also can’t send their son to a larger preschool when he is 4 years old because their “… ideal preschool is out of reach financially, meaning we’ll have to compromise on our son’s early learning,” Samantha Eayrs said.

A family with two children making Vermont’s median income pays nearly a third of their income on child care and for some families, an even higher percentage of their income is spent on child care, said Robyn Freedner-Maguire, campaign director for Let’s Grow Kids.

Freedner-Maguire said data backs up that there is a real issue.

Census Bureau data indicates that approximately 26,000 Vermont children under the age of 6 are in need of child care — but licensed providers have the capacity for only 40 percent of these children, according to Freedner-Maguire.

Subsidies for families who qualify have not kept pace with costs, either, those in the field said.

Judy Pransky has operated and owned licensed child care centers in Vermont for longer than 30 years. She operates a Northeast Kingdom center.

“We do not have adequate slots for children in need of care … particularly infants,” Pransky said. “Affordability and accessibility to quality care and early educational programs has become more difficult for families as centers and programs close due to inadequate program funding and high staff turnover.”

Pransky said, “My hope is that the Blue Ribbon Commission will explore ways to address these issues with outcomes that support the needs of children and families, ultimately driving Vermont’s economy into the future.”

Let’s Grow Kids is urging Vermonters to become involved as the new commission launches, “… to share their views with policymakers as we work together on behalf of Vermont’s children.”

“We are talking with Vermonters, asking them to sign a pledge that says they support positive, lasting change to support quality early experiences, and listening to their concerns,” Freedner-Maguire said.

The campaign has about 4,500 pledges signed to date.

The campaign has created a new link on its website specific to the new commission, which can be found here.

Employer supports change

Mark Curran, owner of Black River Produce, has nearly 200 employees, and said “… There is always a sizable segment of our workforce struggling with adequate and affordable day care.”

“An employee can juggle a lot of outside issues while still focusing on their job but if they’re unhappy about the care being provided to their children their productivity at work will probably suffer,” said Curran.

Helping young children to get the best start they can is critical to their futures, said Curran.

“Our town of Springfield, Vermont, is a good example of a place where employees once made a good living standing in one spot doing a repetitive action for the machine tool industry,” said Curran. “Those jobs are gone and now even entry-level jobs require computer, communication and analytical skills that get their start in early education.”

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