Mar 21, 2021

Dr. Joseph Hagan: With H.171 on child care in Vermont, the Legislature got it right

This commentary is by Dr. Joseph F. Hagan Jr., clinical professor in pediatrics at the Larner College of Medicine at UVM. He co-authored “The Bright Futures Guidelines,” third and fourth editions, the standard for health promotion of well child care in the U.S. He practices primary care at Lakeside Pediatrics in Burlington.

Here’s what every parent and grandparent knows about their children: There’s a lot of brain development between birth and Kindergarten. And parents and grandparents want their children’s brains to be stimulated, challenged and celebrated so that their development might reach its fullest potential with regard to intelligence, social competence, wisdom and happiness.

In my primary care pediatric practice, I frequently recommend for parents John Medina’s evidence-based and delightful book, “Brain Rules for Baby.” It describes how a child’s brain matures structurally and functionally from conception to age 5. Medina equips caregivers to both enjoy and strengthen this marvelous span of development.

We are fortunate that our 2021 Vermont Legislature demonstrates it too knows what is needed for the brains of Vermont’s young children as it considers H.171, an act relating to the governance and financing of Vermont’s child care system.

The 95 co-sponsors of the bill recognize that quality child care is critical for their youngest constituents. But for many Vermont families, this care is unavailable due to cost and competition for limited placements. And as many centers struggle for financial survival, quality and sustainability are at risk.

Let’s Grow Kids reports that even before Covid, three out of five of Vermont’s youngest children did not have access to necessary child care. That means only 40% of our children are served.

For those fortunate children, their parents must cope with spending up to 30% of their annual income on child care. Lack of affordability is a barrier for a majority of families. What two-parent income household can meet mortgage payments, pay off student loans, and swing such cost for child care without sinking into further debt? And what single-parent family can afford this cost even with assistance? Few can.

There is also an early childhood educator workforce crisis in Vermont. In Vermont, the median annual wage for an early childhood educator of preschool-age children is $34,650, often without health care and other benefits. That is about $20,000 a year less than a kindergarten teacher with similar qualifications is paid.

We need our early childhood educators to have the education necessary to care for our children during their most crucial time of development and those educators must be compensated commensurate with their training and expertise. Quality child care starts with a well-compensated and supported early childhood education workforce. Inadequate funding of early childhood education results in reduced quality.

Child care in Vermont needs increased access, it must become more affordable, it requires quality to best support children’s language and communication, their social, emotional and motor development, and to best prepare them for success in kindergarten and grade school. H.171 spotlights these systemic weaknesses.

Our legislators address affordability urgently by expanding the eligibility of the Child Care Financial Assistance Program and by studying solutions for child care financing and governance that are sustainable. Contemporaneously, quality is enhanced through a new Early Care and Education Governance and Administration Advisory Committee and by establishing scholarships and student loan repayment assistance programs for existing and prospective members of the early childhood education workforce.

It follows that better funding and stronger program supports will provide sufficient incentive to improve access.

Some might comment, “I didn’t need this to raise my kids.” Or ask, “Why now?” And I would counter that times change, communities change, families change.

I’m a boomer; my mom was at home and two working-parent families were rare. For my boomer peers and our families, two parents working became more and more prevalent.

Now, for millennial families, two working-parent families predominate, often of financial necessity rather than by choice. They depend on child care for their families to flourish.

Thus, child care is a modern reality. Families need access to child care that is affordable. Communities must support parents’ demands for quality in their children’s child care — not simply because it is the kind thing to do, but to reap the benefits of early childhood education on later education and in the nurturing these future adults who are our own future. H.171 deserves our support.

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