MONTPELIER – Early childhood advocates from across Vermont gathered at the statehouse recently to celebrate progress made in the last year to improve the quality of early childhood programs while also highlighting the need to increase affordability.
2014 saw the launch of the Early Learning Challenge – Race to the Top grant, a $36.9 million grant which invests in strengthening the early childhood system in Vermont. It also saw the passage of Act 166, that, when fully implemented in September 2016, will allow every three and four year old in the state to access 10 hours a week of publicly funded Pre-Kindergarten for 35 weeks a year. The year was also marked by increased collaboration between public and private organizations in the early childhood community.
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All of these efforts combined led to quantifiable improvement in the quality of early childhood programs:
• In the last year there has been a significant increase in both the number and the percentage of childcare programs participating in STARS, Vermont's quality recognition system for childcare, pre-kindergarten education, and afterschool programs. Programs that participate in STARS go above and beyond state regulations to provide high-quality early learning and development services to meet the needs of children and families. In Sept 2013, 597 programs participated in STARS, representing 42% of all childcare programs. In Dec 2014, 986 programs were participating in STARS, representing 72% of all programs.
• Efforts have been made to move more programs into the top tiers of STARS, to ensure that they are providing the highest quality opportunities for Vermont children. From Sept 2013 to Dec 2014, the number of programs in the top three levels of STARS increased by almost 100, from 420 to 514.
While these achievements to improve the quality of Vermont’s childcare system warrant celebration, many needs remain unmet. Lack of high quality, affordable childcare is one of the biggest challenges facing Vermont families and businesses.
To address the issue, the Legislature is considering a Blue Ribbon Commission to explore ways to sustainably finance high quality, affordable childcare in Vermont.
Multiple scientific studies have shown that the earliest years in life—when the brain is developing most rapidly—present the greatest opportunity for the healthy development of our children. This healthy development is dependent on quality experiences that include safe, stimulating, and stable places to live, learn, and play during this critical time. Too many of Vermont’s children do not have access to these quality early learning experiences for two reasons:
1. The cost of childcare is currently unaffordable for parents, across all socio-economic levels.
2. The costs associated with developing quality programming are unaffordable for providers.
In Vermont, more than 26,000 children under the age of 6 are in need of childcare, but licensed childcare providers do not have the capacity to serve them all, creating problems for parents that affect their budgets, home lives, and employment. The costs of this issue extend even further: 40 to 50 percent of children are not sufficiently prepared to enter kindergarten, and the cost of remediating this problem after the fact is many times greater than the cost of ensuring that kids are well-prepared to enter kindergarten in the first place. It is clear that there is still much to be done.
Additionally, 72% of Vermont’s children have all their parents in the workforce, which means many of them are having their earliest experiences in care outside the home for up to 40 hours per week. Business leaders cite that childcare is a critical workforce issue. Without reliable, affordable options, some working parents are unable to achieve the productivity that Vermont businesses need. In addition, there is a shortage of highly trained professionals willing to move, work, live and raise their children in Vermont due to the lack of quality childcare options. When every child has a high-quality early experience to go along with Vermont’s celebrated quality of life, the state will be a true competitor in today’s complex marketplace.
Providers, parents and advocates discussed these and other issues affecting Vermont children with policymakers. The Governor’s FY16 budget recommended the creation of the Blue Ribbon Commission and largely spared the Agency of Human Services, but it did include cuts or level funding of key child care services and supports for families. The Legislature is also considering major child protection and earned sick days legislation.
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