BURLINGTON — Vermont's Blue Ribbon Commission on Financing High Quality, Affordable Child Care released a report this month with recommendations to the administration and Legislature on how to make high-quality child care accessible and affordable for all Vermont families who need it.
The report defines the elements of a high-quality child care program; models how much it would cost per infant, toddler and preschooler to provide high-quality early care and learning; estimates the total cost of high-quality care based on the number of children under 6 who have all available parents in the labor force and are therefore likely to need child care; recommends how much families should be asked to contribute to child care to make it affordable for them; calculates the current investment gap that would need to be filled after existing early childhood funding an3d parental contributions are taken into account; and recommends potential funding sources that could be used to fill this gap.
The Commission's report makes a strong case that ensuring all children have access to high-quality, affordable child care is an economic and social imperative for our state.
In developing this report, the Commission — which includes representatives from the Agency of Education and the Department for Children and Families as well as business leaders, parents and child care providers — met regularly over the course of 16 months. They 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.
We know making Vermont affordable for young families will be a top priority for the legislature and new Administration, and child care is key to this goal. One of the primary reasons too many Vermont families are living paycheck-to-paycheck is the exorbitant cost of child care — it's the second highest cost after housing for Vermont families with young children. At the same time, providers are not making a livable wage.
When working parents can't find child care, businesses lose talented employees. A recent poll found that nationally, three-quarters of mothers and half of fathers have either left the workforce or switched to a less demanding job in order to care for their children. A Cornell University research project found that U.S. employers lose an estimated $3 billion annually as a result of child care-related absences.
The Commission's report cites abundant research that shows children who have high-quality early learning and development opportunities experience greater success in school, relationships and life. Early experiences have lifelong effects on physical and mental health. This isn't surprising given that 90% of the brain develops in the first five years of life, laying the foundation upon which all learning, behavior and health depends.
The reality is that when it comes to early childhood, Vermont can't afford to continue on doing business as usual. We have to reprioritize how we're spending our resources. We know that 70.4 percent of Vermont children under age 6 have all available parents in the labor force, meaning they're likely to need child care. Using this percentage to calculate demand, the Commission identified a funding gap of approximately $200 million. Let's put that number into context: Vermont currently spends about $1.6 billion — about one third of the state's total budget — on K-12 public education.
From the school fiscal year 2014 to 2016, spending on Pre-K-12 Special Education increased by 11 percent while the total number of children enrolled Pre-K-12 decreased. This is largely due to behavioral issues that could be mitigated by high quality early care experiences. In 2015, Vermont spent an average of just over $58,000 on each inmate in its prisons and only spent, on average, approximately $5,000 per child who received child care financial assistance.
Study after study has shown that investing in high-quality early care and learning experiences for young children dramatically reduces future costs in health care, special education and corrections, and serves as an economic driver in supporting working parents and the businesses that employ them. In fact, every dollar invested in early childhood has been shown to yield a return of $4 to $9.
Expanding high-quality, affordable child care to all children in need will have to be done incrementally but we must start now. In the short term, we can find efficiencies to help fund the system until we can reap the financial savings of giving children a strong start. For example, K-12 public education savings achieved under Act 46 could be reallocated to early care and learning programs.
To address the issue of affordability, the Commission proposed developing a new tuition assistance system to help more families afford early care and learning programs. Currently, we know that, on average, Vermont families with young children are spending more than $20,000 a year on child care — more than the cost of tuition at a Vermont state college. According to the Commission's report, only 23 percent of families receive tuition assistance under the current Child Care Financial Assistance Program. That's a serious hardship on working families. Under the Commission's proposed sliding scale system, about 90 percent of Vermont's families with young children would qualify for some amount of tuition assistance.
The Commission's report also includes recommendations for immediate investments to support Vermont's early care and education workforce, such as creating a scholarship fund to incentivize the pursuit of an early childhood education degree.
For the long-term, the Commission is recommending that the state's early childhood public/private partnership, Building Bright Futures (BBF), build off the Commission's work and explore questions of delivery, funding and governance that results in proposing legislation to the Legislature no later than 2019.
The good news is that this issue already has bipartisan support. Republican Governor-elect Phil Scott has repeatedly expressed his commitment to children and to high-quality, affordable child care. House Speaker Mitzi Johnson and House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski are outspoken champions of this issue, and President Pro Temp Tim Ashe and Lieutenant Governor David Zuckerman have also issued statements of support for expanding access to high-quality, affordable child care.