Dr. Joseph Hagan: Invest wisely, invest early in quality child care and education

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In every community throughout the state of Vermont there are simply too few child care openings. Failure to provide affordable early education for all our children is both a missed opportunity and a crucial error.

The neuroscience of child development demonstrates that every time we sing to and smile at an infant, we help them make more brain cells and teach these cells to connect and to work together. Extensive research demonstrates how the positive experiences of exposure to language, social interaction, and play are additive. So, when it comes to early education — whether by parents, family, or early education in high-quality child care — having fun with a young child not only makes them happy, it makes them smart!

Learning does not begin in kindergarten.

The first five years of child development is a critical period for brain growth and learning. The American Academy of Pediatrics describes findings that a child's early care and learning experiences affect later abilities to play, learn, work, and be physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy.

Why is child care in Vermont so hard to find? Cost is the problem. Early educators require expert training and experience, yet they are underpaid and employee benefits are lean. The median wage for child care workers is about half of Vermont kindergarten teachers. Despite this, a year of five-day-per-week toddler care at a sample child care facility now costs $17,264, compared to one year of instate tuition at The University of Vermont which is $16,392. This cost cannot fall solely to families. The majority cannot bear it.

Our current child care crisis demands a community response. A recent study, Vermont's Early Care and Learning Dividend, found every additional dollar Vermont invests to expand high-quality early care and education programs would yield a return of $3.08.

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This would include both immediate economic benefits, such as increased parent participation in the workforce, and long-term savings for Vermont in child welfare, special education, health care, crime and substance abuse costs.

It would be hard to find an investment for our tax dollars which guarantees a higher return. Nobel laureate James Heckman, Ph.D., Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago, teaches that the highest rate of economic return comes from the earliest investments in children.

Burlington is demonstrating one way that we can invest in our youngest residents with its Early Learning Initiative. The city will create new infant and toddler positions and provide scholarships making that care more affordable to qualifying families.

The Vermont Legislature's Appropriations Committee — on advice of the House Human Services and House Commerce and Economic Development Committees — is considering increases in the Child Care Financial Assistance Program. They are also considering critical investments in the early childhood education workforce that would include scholarships, loan repayment supports, and wage supplements.

These efforts demonstrate how it will take action on many levels to achieve our goal of high-quality child care for all Vermonters. I encourage you to share your concerns with your legislators and to request support for these initiatives.

Dr. Joseph Hagan practices primary care pediatrics at Lakeside Pediatrics in Burlington. He is a clinical professor in pediatrics at the Larner College of Medicine of the University of Vermont and co-editor of "The Bright Futures Guidelines for Health Supervision of Infants, Children, Adolescents and Young Adults." The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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