Childcare provision seen as inadequate: Offerings for youngest said to fall short

MIDDLEBURY — Child advocacy groups estimate that more than 79 percent of Vermont’s infants and toddlers likely to need child care don’t have access to programs considered to be high quality. For Addison County, the estimate is 88 percent for infants, 64 percent for toddlers.
“We don’t have enough child care and we don’t have child care that either parents can afford or that those people providing it can afford to do as a full-time career,” said Cheryl Mitchell, a co-founder of the Addison County Parent/Child Center and longtime child advocate.
Closing the gap in terms of quality, access and affordability will take participation of employers, schools and taxpayers. That was the consensus of participants in a community forum on early child care in Addison County that was held last Thursday at Middlebury College and sponsored by Building Bright Futures together with a consortium of local organizations.
The gathering brought together attendees from:
•  Local child care and early learning centers.
•  Local public and private schools.
•  Child advocacy organizations.
•  Medical professionals specializing in child well-being.
•  Mental health workers.
•  Vermont Department of Health.
•  Community College of Vermont (which offers an associate’s degree and other kinds of training in early childhood education).
Also taking part were Addison County state Reps. Peter Conlon, D-Cornwall, and Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, as well as Department for Children and Families Deputy Commissioner Reeva Murphy.
A panel discussion at Middlebury College focused three different lenses on the ongoing early care challenge. Parent/Child Center Co-director Donna Bailey spoke from her perspective as an early care provider and as the head of a flagship organization that provides extended services to struggling families. Addison Central School District Superintendent Peter Burrows talked about the need to rethink and integrate how K-12 education links with early learning. Dave Donahue, director of community relations at Middlebury College and aide to the President’s Office, gave an employer’s perspective on the importance of child care.
Middlebury College has long made efforts to understand and meet its employees’ childcare needs, Donahue said. Starting in 2001, the college worked together with a consortium of local organizations to help create the College Street Children’s Center in Middlebury. Annually, the college gives about $360,000 through the United Way to support College Street, the Mary Johnson Children’s Center, the Bristol Family Center, and Otter Creek Child Center, said Donahue.
In 2016, Donahue conducted a survey of college employees. The results?
“Employees are still really struggling to find child care,” he said. “Part of what we hear from our staff is, ‘Look, I’d love to complain about affordability — I can’t even find it.’”
Part of providing greater access is better engaging the business community, said Donahue. And part of bringing businesses to the table is demonstrating that support for early care and early education affects the bottom line. To illustrate this point, Donahue presented three data points:
•  85 percent of employers nationwide report that child care services improve recruitment.
•  49 percent of employers report that child care services improve employee productivity.
•  U.S. companies lose an estimated $3 billion annually as a consequence of child care related absences.
“We need more local businesses at the table helping us to brainstorm and think about what we’re going to do to create more child care,” said Donahue.
He also gave examples of companies like Dealer.com, which scaled back its Vermont operations this past August, in part, he said, because it couldn’t attract top talent to the Green Mountain State. Better early care could make Vermont more competitive in attracting and retaining businesses, he argued.
Burrows discussed the need for public schools to shift paradigms, from a K-12 construct to a “0 to 20-something.” Schools are moving toward an appreciation that supporting the whole child — social, emotional, physical, cognitive — best supports each child’s learning, he said.
Schools no longer think of education as “what’s in a textbook,” but are now starting “to realize that if students aren’t ready to learn, then everything that we’re doing is falling flat, it’s not making any change for a student and helping them in success later on in their lives.”
He said that, although performance on standardized tests and improving literacy and math are critically import, schools need to shift the principal question they ask:
“How do students feel? How are they connected to what they’re learning? How are we working to support both those students and families with a severe need and the students that just need a little bit more of something?”
“Poverty is the primary risk for poor school achievement,” Burrows underscored.
Within ACSD, for example, fully 40 percent of all students and families live in poverty.
Society must weigh where it wants to invest its resources, said Burrows, noting that current data suggests that every $1 spent on early education saves $7 on remedial education, incarceration and drug and alcohol treatment.
Burrows also noted that given its scale and reputation for excellence, Addison County is uniquely poised to be a statewide leader in addressing this issue.
Bailey eschewed the PowerPoint slides and data points of her fellow presenters and spoke more from the heart about the importance of the state and county coming together to do better for Vermont’s young kids.
A member of the Vermont Blue Ribbon Commission on Financing High Quality Affordable Child Care, Bailey pulled no punches, saying: “It’s got a big price tag and kids are worth it.”
The commission met for over a year, 2015-2016, to develop criteria for high quality early care programs, and estimated the cost of putting best-practices into action. Bottom line: $360-$850 million, “assuming half of the demand is met by center-based care and half of the demand is met by home-based care,” and “assuming that such programs would serve anywhere from 25 percent to 100 percent of the state’s birth-to-five population.”
Following the panel presentations, the forum moved on to small group brainstorming of next steps. Issues raised included
•  Successes of and current pushback on Act 166, which provides subsidies for all children in early care.
•  Adding more tiers of accreditation for care providers, along with financial support for training.
•  Ways to make careers in early care more remunerative, including state support for health care.
•  Keeping early care options varied, so that parents have choice.
Again and again, infant care was noted as an especially challenging issue, and Lanpher informed attendees that a bill supporting expanded parental leave had just cleared the House Committee on Healthcare and was on its way to the Senate.
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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