Eddie Gale: Investing in child care workers

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Eddie Gale, of Johnson, who has been the Vermont program director for the A.D. Henderson Foundation since 2001. He is a former member of the Building Bright Futures State Advisory Council (2012-2018) and a former board member of Mentor Vermont (formerly Mobius). The A.D. Henderson Foundation is based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and supports early learning for children ages birth to 8 in both Vermont and Broward County, Florida. In Vermont, the Henderson Foundation is a significant supporter of Let’s Grow Kids.

A recent article in Kids VT highlighted a moral dilemma I’ve experienced in my work as the Vermont program director for the A.D. Henderson Foundation. The A.D. Henderson Foundation is one of three major private philanthropic supporters for early childhood in Vermont, and in my roughly 20 years with the Henderson Foundation, it has invested over $20 million in improving quality care for our youngest Vermonters. Much of that investment has been to pay for professional development for thousands of early educators, for everything from how to read with young children to assisting early educators in attaining their teaching license from the Agency of Education.

I’m immensely proud of the work the Henderson Foundation has accomplished, until I get to the moral dilemma. As the article I mentioned makes painfully clear, we expect excellence from the early educators who care for our youngest children at the most promising point in their life, yet we pay early educators among the lowest wage scales of any profession. Period.

The sad explanation is that early education works within a broken business model. Most parents are at the beginning of their earning potential and cannot afford to pay for what high-quality care costs. Early educators are left with the choice of doing the work they love at a rate parents can afford or getting into a different profession and leaving parents without an option.

Most developed countries don’t do it this way. Last year the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine came out with a report on “Transforming the Financing of Early Care and Education.” The report found that the list of developed countries that spend less of their gross domestic product on early care and education than the United States does is quite short. The list that spends more than we do is quite long.

Philanthropy’s role is often to highlight excellent models that can then be replicated in the public sector. In the case of early care and education, we already know how to do this work well. We just don’t know how to pay for it. We often hear that we can’t ask early educators to attain college degrees because then they’ll just be lured away by higher paying jobs in the school system.

Here’s the good news. I now think there’s a growing understanding that THERE’S SOMETHING FUNDAMENTALLY WRONG WITH THAT STATEMENT! Why do we expect (primarily) women to do this high-level work at a wage that makes them eligible for Medicaid for their health insurance? Why aren’t we paying early educators what their credentials deserve?

My colleague and friend Mark Sustic has been an early education leader in Franklin County and with the Vermont Agency of Education. Mark was part of the seminal study of the benefits of high-quality early care and education with the Perry Preschool Project in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and he’s currently on the board of directors of one of our other early childhood philanthropic partners, the Turrell Fund. Mark describes the three P’s: People, Place and Practice. We need people who know what early childhood development looks like and who know how to create opportunities for young children to stretch their minds at this important stage in their life when their brain is still wiring and growing. We need places that are safe, engaging and appropriate for every developing stage of a young child. We need to follow a practice that is play-based, that allows young children to be young children while at the same time exercising their brain and their developing small and large muscles. It’s that simple. And that complex.

Most recently, the Henderson Foundation has been supporting the Make Way for Kids program launched by Let’s Grow Kids in early 2018 to help child care professionals start up, expand and/or increase the quality of early care and learning programs for Vermont’s children. This program, which includes grantmaking and expert coaching for early educators, is investing more than $1.7 million to create 1,300 high-quality child care spaces for Vermont’s children.

The good news is that because of the dedication of thousands of early educators and the organizations that support them, and because of support from programs like Make Way for Kids, we’re seeing a steady trend in quality improvement, as measured by STARS, Vermont’s voluntary quality recognition and improvement system for early care and learning programs.

I have never met a parent who aspired to have their children in a lower-quality child care setting. I have met parents who had to make that choice, or have had to choose to leave their job, but not because they wanted to.

Click here to read this commentary on VT Digger.org.