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Addison County folks join hundreds at Statehouse childcare rally

AT THE Wednesday rally, Mary Johnson Children’s Center infant caregiver Courtney Otis held up by MJCC colleague Rosie Mahue, reminds lawmakers who aims to benefit from childcare reform.
Photo courtesy of Mary Johnson Children’s Center

MONTPELIER — Supporters of the Vermont Senate’s childcare bill, a measure that would inject a historic investment into the sector, gathered on the Statehouse steps on Wednesday for an overwhelming display of political force.

Hundreds of families, children and childcare workers — including many from Addison County — came to the Statehouse lawn bearing handmade signs (“It’s time to use our outside voices”) or those provided by Let’s Grow Kids, the deep-pocketed advocacy group that has championed the childcare cause at the Statehouse for nearly a decade.

The group has pledged to deliver affordable access to high-quality childcare for all Vermont families by 2025. And it argues that S.56, a bill passed out of the Senate late last month and now before the House, is its best bet to do so.

Speakers included the president of the Vermont chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, childcare workers and business leaders. Burlington’s Kat Wright Trio played a song written expressly for the movement.

“We were hard to ignore!” said Kristen Dunne, executive director of Mary Johnson Children’s Center in Middlebury, who was at Wednesday’s rally.

But it was the politicians who spoke who displayed just how powerful the cause has become. They included House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington; Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden Central; and four legislative committee chairs.

Even the politicians who did not speak but who assembled behind the podium to signal support represented a who’s who in Vermont politics. They included Attorney General Charity Clark, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger and Lt. Gov. Dave Zuckerman (as well as his predecessor, Molly Gray).

Perhaps the only major political heavyweight not in attendance: Gov. Phil Scott. The Republican has long supported greater investments in childcare — his budget proposal this year even proposed to increase subsidies to the sector by nearly $50 million — but has drawn a line in the sand at raising taxes to do it. (His office said the governor had been told about the rally but was not extended a formal invite.)

And if S.56 makes it over the finish line in its current form (or anywhere close to it) it will require raising new revenues. In 2025, the first full year of operation, the legislation would cost an estimated $160 million, according to the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office.

But Democrats clinched supermajorities in the House and Senate in last November’s elections, and have made clear that they will not hesitate to whip the votes necessary to overcome a gubernatorial veto.

MIDDLEBURY 3-YEAR-OLD Henry Gerner prepares to rile up the crowd before the childcare rally at the Vermont Statehouse on Wednesday.

“I believe that whether our governor signs the bill, lets it become law without his signature, or is overridden by a Legislature that has no patience for his veto — I believe S.56 will become the law of the land by Fourth of July,” Baruth, the Senate leader, told the crowd to cheers and applause.

“And the last thing that I believe — I believe that when it does go into effect, S.56 will make all of us, all of us here together, the envy of the nation,” Baruth added.

Mary Johnson Children’s Center’s Dunne was happy to see the energy on the statehouse lawn and glad to have it stir more conversations among lawmakers.

“Those backing the bill spoke with fire and their words were filled with emotion and first-hand experience in juggling childcare and careers,” she said. “If nothing else, those who are pushing this bill and debating with their colleagues now have more fuel to keep going. Gov. Scott seems skeptical and not ready to back the bill with many priorities on his desk.”

Dunne sees this as part of the continuing effort to make childcare more affordable to Vermont families.

“Supporting legislators are determined to get S.56 through the finish line with or without the governor,” she said. “We’ll see … and we’ll keep advocating in the meantime.”

DISCUSSIONS AHEAD

But while there is consensus among Democrats that childcare must receive a historic investment this session, major disagreements remain between lawmakers about how to fund the measure — and what other social programs, if any, should fall by the wayside to do so.

KIMBERLY BELL, LEFT, of MJCC’s Cooperative Nursery School and Angela Dupoise of Otter Creek Child Center flank Addison County State Sen. Ruth Hardy at Wednesday’s childcare rally in Montpelier. Hardy’s bill passed the Senate and is being considered by the Vermont House.
Photo courtesy of Mary Johnson Children’s Center

The Senate has taken a more conservative approach. The bill they advanced would kill a $1,000 child tax credit to help pay for childcare and proposes a slimmed-down parental leave benefit. Leaders in the House, meanwhile, have been adamant that Vermont can bolster its childcare sector and advance a comprehensive paid family and medical leave bill this session — and are protective of the child tax credit, which they argue is a powerful anti-poverty tool.

Several speakers from the lower chamber made sure to position their support for childcare within the context of fighting for expansions to the social safety net in general.

“We’ve made important strides in improving family wellbeing, for fellow Vermonters with last year’s passage of the child tax credit with an expanded earned income tax credit with investments and housing and more,” said Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro, who chairs the chamber’s tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. “But we can continue to fulfill a promise that we as legislators here made to Vermonters with a passage of a universal family medical leave bill and affordable accessible childcare funding.”

Shasta Fowler came to the rally with her 10-month-old daughter, Phoebe. She said she’s been fortunate enough to stay home to take care of her toddler. But that’s “not the norm,” the 36-year-old Montpelier resident said. Many of her friends are feeling the strain.

“My stroller group got political — I think we do more emailing our representatives than strolling together at this point,” she said. “Everyone’s at their wit’s end, trying to make life work.”

Childcare advocates argue there’s a direct line between the often poverty wages in the industry (many workers also go without paid leave or health insurance) and the critical shortage of slots for infants and toddlers. With the infusion of cash promised in S.56, providers have said they’ll be able to finally raise wages.

MIDDLEBURY CHILDCARE PROVIDER Wendy Chase offers a message of hope to her fellow providers at the April 12 Statehouse rally.
Photo courtesy of Mary Johnson Children’s Center

Adele Blaisdell, 42, a teacher at the Turtle Island Children’s Center in Montpelier, came to the rally alongside several colleagues and said that she adores the work she’s doing now and the play- and nature-based curriculum at the center. But she concedes her decision to stick to early childhood education has come at a cost.

“Honestly, if I went back to work as a line cook, I would make way more money than I’m making right now,” she said. “And that’s kind of a tough call.”

Su White, teaching director at the Quarry Hill School in Middlebury, told the crowd at the rally that Vermont has never been closer to solving the childcare crisis. “As professionals, we deserve compensation, respect and opportunities,” she said. “When I retire, I would love to know that there is a child care system in place that works for all Vermonters. We can do it! We are here and the moment is now.”

Susan Wright, 60, another Turtle Island teacher, said she had been working as an early childhood educator “most of her life.” She’s not sure if it’s Let’s Grow Kids, or the COVID-19 pandemic, but she said work that had long been considered simply “babysitting” and “not really a job” is now getting the recognition and respect it deserves.

“I feel like the tide has turned,” Wright said.

Addison Independent’s John S. McCright contributed to this story.

 

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