Mar 12, 2019

Mark Shriver: Investing in child care is investing in Vermont’s future

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Mark K. Shriver, who is the CEO of Save the Children Action Network.

All too often, divided control of government can be a recipe for increased partisanship and gridlock, especially when elected leaders place ambition and acrimony over actual results. One notable exception is Vermont, where there is tripartisan support for child care policies that will improve the health and well-being of kids.

During Gov. Phil Scott’s campaign, he promised to boost funding for Vermont’s child care programs. The governor reiterated the pledge in his January state budget address, saying that he plans “to make it more accessible and affordable for low-income and working families, so that all kids have a chance to thrive.”

As CEO of Save the Children Action Network (SCAN), I was pleased to recently join Gov. Scott, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson and Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe at the Robin’s Nest Child Care Center in Burlington and at the Statehouse to highlight the educational and economic impacts of increasing access to high-quality, affordable child care. Together with my friend Jennifer Garner, a Save the Children trustee, we not only talked about the importance of investing in early care, but we also witnessed its potential to grow the economy, make Vermont more affordable and protect the most vulnerable.

The first years are the most critical in a child’s life. By age 5, a child’s brain is almost completely developed. However, a 2018 report from our partner Let’s Grow Kids, an outstanding local advocacy group, found that 51 percent of Vermont children in need of care “do not have access to any regulated child care program,” a trend that has only increased in the last few years. Further, nearly eight-in-10 Vermont infants and toddlers don’t have access to high-quality programs.

At just 2 years old, children from low-income families can be up to six months behind their wealthier peers in language development. Many of them will never catch up. In fact, studies have shown that low-income children who don’t participate in high-quality early childhood education programs are 60 percent less likely to attend college and 70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime.

Vermont’s economy would also benefit from increased access to early childhood programs. Nobel Prize-winning economist and University of Chicago professor James Heckman’s research has shown that high-quality early-childhood programs for disadvantaged children more than pay for themselves, and can provide a 13 percent return on investment per year, per child.

Today, more than 70 percent of Vermont children under the age of 6 live in families in which both parents are in the labor force. For these moms and dads, finding a balance between work and home life depends upon the care and supervision of young children during work hours. Up until the beginning of this year, state payment rates for subsidized child care remained stagnant for the better part of a decade. As a result, low-income and working families found themselves unable to afford child care, and child care providers struggled to make living.

Last year, a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a decades-old case barring states from collecting sales taxes from most e-commerce businesses. In Vermont, the tax is now projected to bring in $4.6 million in the current fiscal year and roughly $7 million in fiscal year 2020, according to the state tax commission. Scott has proposed dedicating this windfall to boosting child care subsidies. Meanwhile, Democratic legislative leaders have come out with their own robust proposal, also seeking to increase the scope and effectiveness of child care subsidies while ensuring Vermont invests in the development of its early care and learning workforce.

All kids deserve an equal chance to succeed. Investing in them means investing in Vermont’s economy and its future. The voters and families of Vermont are fortunate to have leaders of all political stripes focused on this issue and offering improvements and solutions.

The potential to forge compromise and achieve meaningful progress this legislative session is real. The time to act is now. SCAN is proud to be an active partner with Let’s Grow Kids in the effort to pass strong legislation. Working with the grassroots and across party and ideological lines, leaders in Montpelier can make Vermont a leader that the rest of the country looks to for guidance on this issue in the years ahead.

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