Dec 20, 2016

Matt Levin: Vermont’s Child Care Puzzle

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Matt Levin, of Berlin, who is the executive director of the Vermont Early Childhood Alliance. 

Vermonters usually find a way to make things work. That’s the way it is with so much of our lives, whether we are talking about making a living or supporting a family or figuring out how to get through the week.

Figuring it out is certainly the norm when it comes to families and child care. This is true for all types of families – new arrivals to Vermont, families that have been here for generations, a couple starting out on their own, or a family with grandparents just across town. Once we get past that first burst of celebration when welcoming a new child, realities about jobs and budgets and family balance kick in. For many, that means finding someone outside the immediate family to watch, care for, and support the growth of our children for at least some hours of the day.

The solution for many Vermont families, and most Vermont communities, is a combination of many things cobbled together – usually good-naturedly, sometimes with a bit of tension, and rarely without stress. It’s the only way to solve problems in our rural, diverse communities, where there are a wide variety of family combinations, job schedules, and children’s needs. The solutions are rarely ideal, but we find a way.

In Vermont we help families make this work through our “mixed delivery system” of child care and early learning providers. This diverse system includes small and large private providers, home and center-based programs, and school-based programs. This mixed system exists for all ages, especially for pre-K programs for 3- to 5-year-olds. The Legislature has embraced and encouraged this public-private partnership model between school districts and community-based providers, first through Act 62 and more recently through Act 166.

Under Act 166 – the universal pre-K legislation – the system has been made more formal. Providers that want to partner with schools have to go through a uniform process to ensure that the level of care and learning they provide meets state standards for high-quality early education.

And with the passage of universal pre-K, parents know that they have access to public funding for 10 hours a week of high-quality care and early learning experiences for their young children – at exactly the point in their young lives when this kind of learning will help children the most.

his mixed delivery system expands options for families. Utilizing the many private community providers makes it easier for families to find the care they need in a way that works for them, whether that is closer to home or closer to work. Sometimes, this means at the school their children will later attend. Other times, it is with child care providers that the children already have relationships with.

One of the benefits of this model is that it utilizes the capacity that already exists, rather than asking school districts across the state to build in new programming for new pre-K programs. Working with private providers also means that there is more flexibility to meet different schedules and different needs. The universal pre-K model includes providers that are already serving our families, and ensures that parents who work (and commute) have a safe, secure, and positive place for their kids to be.

There have been a few challenges as the universal pre-K program has gotten going. Not every family is finding that the state-supported program works for them. Some providers have run into administrative roadblocks in finalizing their federal background checks, and there have been some paperwork problems. While frustrating, such early turbulence is not surprising, given all the children and programs involved.

We also know, both from our own experiences and from more formal studies like the one done recently by Let’s Grow Kids and the state agency in charge of child care, that our child care system is not working as well as we need it to. Care is not available to all families that need it, it’s too expensive, and at the same time providers can’t pay their employees enough.

Our state’s system of child care is far from perfect. And we’ll have to work together to solve the challenges of access, affordability and quality.

But what we are hearing is that for the most part our mixed delivery system and universal pre-K is working. Schools and private providers around the state are working together. Paperwork and record-keeping issues are getting resolved. And most important, more kids are getting access to high-quality learning experiences.

To solve any challenge in Vermont, we know we have to work together. That’s what our state’s child care mixed delivery system is – a way for different parts of our community to provide different pieces of a puzzle. And we can’t do it with just some of the pieces – our kids need all of them.

We know how important these early years are for children, and for their futures. Vermont has done a great thing in using all of the parts of our child care system to help us move to a universal pre-kindergarten model. It provides financial relief to all families in Vermont and elevates the quality of pre-K education and child care across the state. And by supporting working families, it strengthens our state’s economy.

Change takes time, and we should be patient as this programs rolls out and finds the right balance in communities around the state. Our children are worth it.

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