I applaud the Legislature for approving a much-needed $1 million funding increase for Vermont's Child Care Financial Assistance Program, tuition assistance for early care and learning programs, in the fiscal year 2017 budget. At a time of great fiscal challenges, this decision highlights the Legislature's desire to support the wellbeing of Vermont's children and families. However, while the $1 million is an important step in the right direction, it woefully stops short of the necessary funding to support the healthy development of Vermont's children and for tax payers to gain a good return on their investment.
The brain develops most rapidly during the early years and it presents the greatest opportunity for children's healthy cognitive, social and emotional development. Research has found that for every dollar invested into early childhood programs, such as childcare, there is a return on tax payers' investment of seven to ten dollars reducing future costs in education, healthcare and corrections. Children in quality programs are less likely to need special education or be held back a grade, and are less likely to commit a violent crime.
While it's the natural desire and responsibility of parents to support the healthy development of their children, the challenges facing today's families make this difficult. More than 70 percent of Vermont's children under age six live in households where all parents are in the labor force and need some form of care outside of their home. Yet, more than half of families with infants and toddlers likely to need care do not have access to high-quality, affordable child care.
Working women are especially affected by this issue — lack of affordable childcare is often an obstacle to women working full-time and achieving higher earnings. A key finding in the 2016 Status Report: Women, Work and Wages in Vermont from Change the Story, cites that women are significantly more likely than men to live in poverty, in part because they have the main responsibility for the care of young children. Having more affordable, high-quality childcare programs will give more women the opportunity to stay in and thrive in the workforce.
Funding CCFAP is a smart strategy to give every child a strong start while also helping to create a stable workforce, which Vermont businesses need to thrive. But, we are not doing enough.
As Anne, a parent from Wolcott, shared in our Small Talk project: "The financial equation just doesn't work. It costs too much for families and yet the child care providers aren't making ends meet."
CCFAP provides child care tuition assistance for families who meet certain financial, health, work or education criteria and children who are currently in the care of the Department for Children and Families. This program is a vital resource for Vermont families who could otherwise not afford to enroll their children in quality child care programs while parents work or attend school.
The $1 million increase stops us from backsliding, but the gap between tuition assistance rates and the actual cost of child care remains; in fact, to bring assistance rates in line with 2014 child care tuition market rates, CCFAP would need an additional investment of approximately $9.1 million.
That's why Let's Grow Kids and our partners — Vermont Early Childhood Alliance, Vermont Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies, Vermont Association for the Education of Young Children and the Vermont Child Care Providers Association — joined together in support of the CCFAP funding increase.
For the long-term, the Blue Ribbon Commission on Financing High Quality, Affordable Child Care is looking at Vermont's child care programs as a whole. The commission — which includes business representatives, policymakers, parents and child care providers — will issue a report in November that will recommend specific strategies to support high-quality, affordable child care in Vermont.
Once the Blue Ribbon Commission recommends actions, it will be up to Vermonters to ensure this translates into real results for Vermont's children.
If you want to help build a strong, effective and sustainable child care system that supports all of Vermont's children, their families and their child care providers and strengthens Vermont's economy, join the Let's Grow Kids campaign. Visit www.letsgrowkids.org to see how you can get involved.
Robyn Freedner-Maguire is the Campaign Director of Let's Grow Kids, a statewide public awareness and engagement campaign about the important role that high-quality, affordable child care can play in supporting the healthy development of Vermont's children during their first five years.