child care

Aly Richards, CEO of Lets Grow Kids, speaks during a press conference with Congressman Peter Welch outside of Sunrise Family Resource Center in Bennington last summer.

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A coalition of business leaders, child care advocates and legislative leaders are calling for action to make quality child care accessible, affordable and sustainable in three years, saying the COVID-19 pandemic has proven that quality affordable child care is an economic necessity as well as a public good.

At a virtual news conference presented by the advocacy group Let’s Grow Kids, the organization’s chief executive officer, Aly Richards, laid out a three-year plan to cap costs for families at 10 percent of household income, pay competitive salaries and benefits to trained providers, streamline and improve state management of the child care system, and further expand the state’s Child Care Financial Assistance Program.

Lawmakers including House Speaker Jill Krowinski, Senate President pro tem Becca Balint, House Human Services Committee chairperson Rep. Ann Pugh, and Commerce and Community Development chairperson Rep. Michael Marcotte, pledged to work on the issue this term, saying the pandemic has proven it’s a necessity.

Lawmakers have been hearing about the difficulty of finding and affording child care for years, and “we especially have heard a lot of concerns over the past 10 months,” Krowinski said. “That is why child care will be one of the most important priorities for the Legislature this year.”

“Giving our children the best care we can is the right thing to do educationally and economically, but also a critical moral imperative,” said Balint, D-Windham District. “We have to give every child in Vermont the opportunity to have a great start in life.”

Krowinski, D-Chittenden 6-3, said a child care bill would be introduced this year in the House, and Pugh, D-Chittenden 7-2, and Marcotte, R-Orleans 2, pledged the efforts of their respective committees.

“We know child care is a key to economic and workforce development in Vermont,” Marcotte said.

Let's Grow Kids was joined by Vermont's policymakers, business and health care leaders, parents and early educators, and early childhood partners to discuss why high-quality, affordable child care will be one of the most important priorities for the Vermont Legislature this year.

Speakers were:

• House Speaker Jill Krowinski

• State Representative Ann Pugh, Chair of the House Committee on Human Services

• State Representative Mike Marcotte, Chair of the House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development

• Senate Pro Tempore Becca Balint

• State Senator Ginny Lyons, Chair of the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare

• Michael Speaker, Vermont President of People's United Bank

• Adeline Druart, President of Vermont Creamery

• Keegan Albaugh, Burlington father of two young children, and founder of the Dad Guild

• Trisha Scharf, owner of Children Unlimited child care center in Williston

A previous blue ribbon task force report on the state of child care in Vermont estimated the cost at $200 million, and a white paper produced by Let’s Go Kids suggests a payroll tax as a mechanism to pay for it. That investment would stay in Vermont, benefit residents, create better-paying jobs in the child care industry and stabilize the industry, Richards said.

Let’s Grow Kids’ proposal calls for a feasibility study on revenue sources that “allows [legislators and the administration] to kick the tires together,” Richards said.

“We know we are still in a pandemic, That’s why our proposal does not ask for new revenue staring today,” Richards said. “But the state by year three must make the investment to fund and fix the system.”

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What’s most important, Richards said, is that the work begin now.

“We have to start by not only going big for affordability but going big on our goal for compensation,” Richards said. Establishing standards for child care providers and investing in workforce development will help the industry grow to meet need, she added.

“We must go big on these two goals and we must make progress this year,” she said.

Business leaders including Michael Seaver, the Vermont president of People’s United Bank, and Vermont Creamery CEO Adeline Druart, said the lack of child care is a major factor in recruiting and retention of employees. Druart said the lack of child care for employees is limiting her company’s growth.

Seaver said he once believed the state could find and repurpose funds in its education budget to address the state’s child care needs. He doesn’t think so any longer.

“I believe we need to make a new investment in kids,” Seaver said. “The crisis we have before us is so great and the systemic solution is so needed, we need to act more quickly than we can with a thought of re-envisioning our entire K-12 system. We cannot afford to lose the opportunity for another generation of kids to have access to this kind of system.”

Gov. Phil Scott’s proposed Fiscal 2022 budget proposes an education property tax exemption for private child care facilities and a $53 million upgrade of the state government’s information technology infrastructure.

Richards said she was “gratified” by the administration’s proposal on IT upgrades, saying the child care plan can’t succeed without them. And she thanked state leaders for their attention to the child care system when the pandemic struck, saying it saved the industry and made Vermont a national leader. “The status quo has not been working but we preserved the status quo,” she said.

That said, the status quo was a system in which three out of five Vermont children did not have access to quality child care before the pandemic, families were paying as much as 30 percent of their household income on child care, and workers were earning a median wage of about $34,650, often without benefits, according to Let’s Grow Kids.

Tricia Scharf, who owns and operates a child care facility in Williston, said the industry needs educated and trained employees to work with children, but cannot attract and retain the best people given the low salaries and lack of benefits. In the current situation, she can’t pay more, and she can’t charge parents more.

“I have lost many qualified teachers to other professions and to public schools because they couldn’t afford to stay,” Scharf said. “We must increase compensation.”

Greg Sukiennik covers Vermont government and politics for New England Newspapers. Reach him at gsukiennik@reformer.com.

Greg Sukiennik has worked at all three Vermont News & Media newspapers and was their managing editor from 2017-19. He previously worked for ESPN.com, for the AP in Boston, and at The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Mass.