Child care capacity declining statewide

A new report from the Joint Fiscal Office shows the availability of child care and pre-kindergarten in Vermont is declining.

Released in November, the “Child Care and Pre-Kindergarten Capacity Baseline Report” compiled statewide and county data from December 2015 through June 2018, reporting a decline in registered home-based child care providers in the face of a growing population of newborn to 2-year-olds.

The report shows the greatest reduction in child care capacity came from registered home providers: In the time period analyzed, these providers decreased by 26.6 percent statewide, amounting to 1,800-plus individual slots. In Chittenden County, that number was just over 30 percent, or 372 slots.

Licensed centers and school-based child care had less of a shift, with a 1.8 percent decrease statewide and 2.3 percent in Chittenden County. However, slots actually increased by about 161 statewide and 40 in Chittenden County, reflecting the increase in available pre-qualified pre-K programs, the report shows.

Stephanie Barrett, who co-authored the report with Chloe Wexler at JFO, said these numbers were unsurprising to the Vt. Department for Children and Families, which licenses child care facilities, because it’s seen similar results in its own data.

“What would be interesting to know … is to understand the reasons people are going out,” Barrett said.

The JFO report suggests more older providers retired without a successor, or rigorous requirements drove them to close. Potential providers could have been lured to better jobs, it says. Barrett said a statewide survey, the results of which will come out at the end of the month, will be able to tell a more nuanced story.

Home-based centers in particular have closed more than they’ve opened in the last decade in Vermont and nationwide, said Janet McLaughlin, interim CEO of Let’s Grow Kids, a state campaign to ensure affordable child care.

She attributes this to new regulations for licensed and registered homes that became effective in September 2016. These required providers and staff to meet higher educational qualifications and demanded upgrades to homes – guidelines some providers couldn’t keep up with.

Laura Butler of Milton has been a registered home provider for almost 28 years and said she had to make some costly changes to her home to comply with the new rules.

Butler has to get creative with sourcing educational and other materials for the kids, like scouring garage sales and exchanging with other providers, to stay in business.

“The most difficult is actually charging what your service is worth,” she said. “The cost of child care is already difficult for most. How can I ask for more?”

McLaughlin said the new regulations, which hadn’t been updated in 15-plus years, maintain quality and safety but argued the state hasn’t allocated enough funds to help many home-based providers stay in business.

“The lack of investment in early care and learning systems is really what’s putting the downward pressure on programs in terms of capacity,” McLaughlin said. “Families can’t afford to pay more, and early educators can’t afford to make less.”

Essex High School alum Kel Carpenter and her family just moved back to Essex from Michigan, primarily for the good school system and to be closer to family. She said all the local providers she met with were professional and passionate, but the high cost made it impossible for her to enroll her child.

“Child care is a huge barrier for employment, only accessible for the elite or those who qualify for Head Start,” she said. “Most young families do not fit that mold, so between that, lack of access to affordable housing and the weak transportation infrastructure in this area, families like mine are leaving this area to pursue better opportunities.”

To compensate, Carpenter took a part-time remote job just so she could stay home to care for her child. But juggling work and child care is difficult, she said.

The legislature passed Act 166, or universal prekindergarten, in 2014 to provide families access to publicly funded pre-K education. For the 2019-20 school year, the state will pay just over $3,300 in tuition for a child to attend a pre-qualified pre-K program for 10 hours a week, but these part-time hours make it logistically challenging.

Meredith Breiland lives in Milton but sends her children to Little Feats Too in Colchester due to its close proximity. She wishes her children were in the Milton Early Education Program, but the lottery-style system of enrollment and part-time hours make it impossible for her family’s 9-to-5 schedule.

“We’re grateful for Act 166 funding, but it doesn’t cover much,” Breiland said.

Families with qualifying income can also get government subsidies through DCF’s Child Care Financial Assistance program. But Dawn Irwin of Essex, an early educator in South Burlington who volunteers for Let’s Grow Kids, said even when families qualify for 100 percent of these subsidies, it doesn’t always cover 100 percent of the care.

“We need funding for families to actually be able to use the money that’s there,” she said.

With more funding, Irwin said, providers could get their staff qualified, reduce turnover and continue to expand their capacity, or new providers could open in the first place.

The decrease in capacity shown in the JFO report puts other stressors on families, including long wait lists and parents compromising their jobs or well-being to take care of their children.

Samara Fogel of Colchester said her daughter spent six months at a child care facility that was less than ideal with an extremely high turnover rate in teachers and directors, making for an unstable environment. But she couldn’t take her daughter out until a space opened up at another facility.

“A six-month waitlist for care in Chittenden County is awful,” Fogel said. “Knowing that you’re sending your child to a place that isn’t safe or stable for six months feels horrible. I wish there were more child care options here so that long waitlists for good care didn’t exist.”

Fogel’s daughter had a speech delay and really needed to be with children her own age to work on her speech. A larger child care center could provide this separation of age groups, while a home-based center, Fogel said, would put her daughter with younger children, possibly delaying her daughter further.

Conversely, Emily Peters of Colchester said she relied on a home-based care provider for its small environment, close interactions and flexibility. When the provider died, Peters had to send her kids to a larger center, which ultimately didn’t work out.

“One of my youngest was diagnosed with a food allergy, and as new to navigating that, we felt safer with him one-on-one or at home,” Peters said. “My middle [child] also had a hard time there with other kids … we didn’t want him to be bullied, and we wanted him to thrive, so we moved him.”

Peters said an au pair cares for all three of her kids, which provides flexibility on vacations and school days, as well as close, personal care. She said the costs were the same as sending her children to a larger center, even during summer vacation.

“Wouldn’t it be amazing if parents felt like they had a bunch of great options and could make a choice that was right for their family?” McLaughlin, the Let’s Grow Kids CEO, posited. “Instead of feeling like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is a crisis that I’m going to have to solve for my family?’”

McLaughlin said her organization is lobbying for more funding for families and child care providers to potentially solve these issues. She said the legislature introduced a bill last week that she hopes will be passed this session.

“We are also trying to do the on-the-ground work within the state to support programs to address this capacity need directly,” she said. “We’re not just waiting for action elsewhere. We’re doing it directly.”

Click here to read this story on the Milton Independent website.