Blue Ribbon Child Care

By:  Emerson Lynn
St. Albans Messenger

The need to find affordable, high-quality child care is routinely listed as one of the challenges that retards the state’s ability to prosper, and one that is a compounding force on the effects of poverty and neglect in our communities.

On Nov. 1, the Blue Ribbon Commission on Financing High Quality, Accordable Child Care is scheduled to issue its report on how Vermont can address the issue, including estimates as to what it would cost and how we might proceed.

It’s a critical issue, and what the commission advocates will be crucial in how the public and our elected leaders respond.

It’s a critical issue forced by demographics. The percentage of our population over 65 has increased 12.5 percent from 2010-2013, those between 55-64 grew by almost six percent. In those same years the two age groups that saw the biggest decline were those between 35-54 and 0-4.

Clearly, we are short of workers, with the trend going forward being even more dire. If we are to have an economy that prospers we will need to have a workforce free from the worry of not being able to find suitable child care.

It’s just that clear.

But our worry is this: It’s relatively easy to put a figure on what it would cost to provide good child care. And it’s relatively easy to make the case that providing suitable child care is fundamental to Vermont’s economic and social future.

We need more than that. If the commission reports out a cost figure without the context of how it could be most efficiently delivered, then it will hobble the conversation before it’s had a change to begin.

What the commission should not do is to present our child care needs as a financial and social challenge over and above what we already have on our plates. If the commission produces a per-child estimate as to what it would cost to provide adequate care, and suggests it’s the responsibility of the state and its people to find new money to meet this need, then the chances of success will evaporate like the morning’s dew. 

We raise the issue as an obvious parallel to what Vermont is experiencing with Act 46, the state’s school consolidation law. We are figuring out how to deal with a school system that, by 2030, will have lost almost a third of its student population from its peak in the early 1990s.

This population decline is affecting how the state is structured, how it works, and how it will continue to work. Act 46 has set in place a process geared toward efficiency and outcomes. 

The two – our schools and our child care needs – are not separate. They are one and the same. And, if viewed from 30,000 feet up, both are increasingly part of the state’s struggle against poverty, neglect and abuse. That’s crucial to bear in mind as we address our child care needs.

As we’re learning with the Act 46 process, dealing with child care needs is not something that can, or should, be dealt with, singly, or in small numbers. This isn’t about subsidizing individual families to meet their child care needs, this is about figuring out ways to create larger centers so that more children can be dealt with effectively and efficiently.

Vermont also needs to look at child care as more than a responsibility met by educators, or by funding through traditional educational sources, like the property tax. Our population numbers are so low, and our social and demographic challenges so considerable, that we should consider this need as something that is met on a collective front. There may be an opportunity for schools and their accompanying municipal districts, or state programs, to consider joint arrangements.

Then, there is this: If we’re on the way to losing a third of our students, and if our teacher-pupil ratio continues to lag far below the national average, then obviously we have the space and the teachers available to deal with a meaningful percentage of our child care needs. How else do we deal with either the low wage issue for child care employees, or the lack of availability? 

To get to this point requires that we look at our child care needs through various lenses. What doesn’t work is to consider it as we have, which is in small units, with little oversight, few meaningful standards, and continual employee turnover. What doesn’t work is to present the issue as something that is urgent, something that needs to stand alone, something that will require a new bureaucratic structure, and something that will drain us of what remains of our meager resources. 

If that is how the conversation begins, the issue is lost.

Our child care needs are dramatic, and our economy going forward depends on this need being met; we don’t have the population necessary to prosper if we have people sitting home wanting to go to work, but unable to find suitable child care at an affordable prices.

To meet this need requires the same sort of thinking that is moving us forward with Act 46. The challenge is figuring out how we can extract the value out of our existing public investments [our schools] and to blend these efficiencies with the services provided in other arenas, like Head Start for example.

Once again, it’s a conversation that forces us out of the individual silos that restrain our thinking. Let’s hope the blue ribbon group on child care thinks similarly.