Jeannette Hogan and Tom Johnson: Public investments in quality, affordable child care long overdue

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After decades of philanthropic investment in Vermont's early care and learning system, it is gratifying to see a bill moving through the Legislature that includes significant new investments to make high-quality child care more affordable to Vermont families.

H.531, the child care bill, passed unanimously (133-0) in the House and $9.5M of its proposed investments were included in the Senate Appropriations Committee's budget bill. This level of sweeping tri-partisan support for high-quality, affordable child care is unprecedented and long overdue.

Investing in our kids while they are young gives them the solid start they need to realize their potential; succeed in school, work and life; and become contributing members of society.

For far too long, the child care system—on which the vast majority of Vermont families and businesses rely—has depended almost entirely on the ability of parents to pay and the willingness of early educators to sacrifice their own financial wellbeing. It has become nearly impossible for many families to find or afford quality child care, forcing some parents to drop out of the workforce. Vermont does not have enough qualified early educators to fill open positions because of low pay and lack of professional support.

A Vermont child's access to quality early learning experiences during the most crucial time of human development depends on where the child lives and how much money her family makes. If we want a Vermont in which every child has the same opportunity to reach his full potential, we need to make high-quality, affordable child care a reality for every family who needs it.

Soon after Let's Grow Kids (LGK) was founded in 2000, the Board zeroed in on early childhood care and education as the best investment we could make to support Vermont's children, families, communities and economy now and in the future.

In the early years, the Board focused on awarding grants to exemplary early childhood programs. But these organizations were constantly struggling to stay afloat; they needed life rafts and we were offering band-aids. It became clear that all the ingenuity, efficiency and careful planning in the world couldn't make up for the fact that, as a society, we have severely underinvested in the care and education of our youngest children.

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For the past several years, we've invested in strengthening Vermont's early care and learning system in preparation for what we know is necessary: increased public investment. We leveraged philanthropy to jumpstart publicly funded universal pre-K. We continue to help child care programs improve their quality and to fund professional development for hundreds of early educators. The data shows these investments are paying off: The quality of child care programs in Vermont has been steadily increasing even as Vermont, like the rest of the nation, has seen a gradual decline in child care capacity.

To address capacity issues head-on, LGK launched the Make Way for Kids program in 2018, providing grants and technical assistance to start up, expand and/or improve the quality of early care and learning programs in Vermont. With the support of donors in Vermont and nationwide, Make Way for Kids is investing $1.7M and partnering with local communities across the state to help add 1,300 more high-quality child care spaces for Vermont's children by 2020.

We know what works. We just haven't yet invested, as a state, in making high-quality child care accessible and affordable for all Vermont families who need it.

When presenting the child care bill to the House of Representatives, Rep. Theresa Wood said: "We must act now to improve the lives of our youngest citizens, to increase the financial security of working families, to support a struggling workforce, to attract young families to Vermont, to address employee issues for Vermont businesses and to ultimately improve the state's economy. For every public $1 invested in high quality early care and learning, there is a $3 return on that investment."

We can't solve Vermont's child care problem without investing in our youngest children, their families and the early educators who support them and we can't afford to keep waiting.

We urge the Legislature and Administration to pass a budget with significant investments in child care this session as the first step in a multi-year process to build a high-quality, affordable child care system that benefits all Vermonters.

Jeannette Hogan is the wife of the late Con Hogan, who was a founding board member of the Permanent Fund for Vermont's Children (now Let's Grow Kids) and a longtime Vermont public servant. She lives in Plainfield. Tom Johnson is president of the Johnson Family Foundation and an emeritus board member of Let's Grow Kids. He lives in Poultney. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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