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Why Are Child Care Professionals Paid So Poorly In Vermont?

A woman stands in the center of children on a blue rug.
Elodie Reed
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VPR
After working as a preschool teacher at the Vermont Achievement Center for over 12 years, Nicole L'Esperance, who also has a bachelor's degree, makes just over $14 an hour.

The smell of fish sticks, crayons, and the sweet-yet-slightly-grubby smell of small children. If you’re a parent, you know what we’re talking about. If you’re not? Welcome to child care.

Note: Our show is made for the ear! As always, we recommend listening if you can.

It’s lunch time at the Vermont Achievement Center, one of the oldest and largest child care centers in Rutland County.

The rooms at the VAC are color coded, and this room — which is filled with 4-year-olds who desperately want to play with a reporter’s recording gear — is called “The Brown Room.”  (Full disclosure, Nina’s daughter spent time in this very room almost 20 years ago.)

Today, Nicole L’Esperance is lead teacher. When asked to describe what she does every day, she sighs.

“Let's see,” she says. “I'm the preschool teacher, but more so, I am the cleaner-upper. Sometimes we’re a referee.”

You may have heard of that book, All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten. Today, for many kids, those lessons start now — before kindergarten.

L’Esperance’s list of the wisdom she imparts to her students goes on: “Making better choices, or slowing down, sitting, following directions.”

Using their manners. Putting away their own things, getting their own things, cleaning up their own messes.

L’Esperance has three kids of her own and has been working at the VAC for more than 12 years. She has blue eyes and chin-length reddish-brown hair that shines with streaks of purple in the right light.

A woman looks at a young child pointing a finger.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
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VPR
Nicole helps navigates a conflict between two of her preschool students.

She’s also got a bachelor’s degree in social work from Castleton University. But she admits her education doesn’t always register with parents.

“I think they think we're babysitters,” she says. “They just bring their kids, and they pick their kids up. And sometimes they are very interested in what we're doing and we've done all day. And sometimes it doesn't really matter, and they're not interested.”

Does that rankle?

“Yeah. Yeah,” she says. “Because I always refer to it as 'school.' And so to me, it's, you know, ‘We're going to school,’ and I'm a preschool teacher. And everything we do all day teaches them something.”

Sounds pretty legit, right? But after earning her college degree and spending more than 12 years in this job, Nicole says she makes just over $14 an hour.

Our winning question

The typical angle for stories about child care is about how expensive it is for parents, and how difficult it is to even get a spot for your child — especially one for your baby.          

A man sitting at a desk filled with toys.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR
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VPR
Our brave question-asker this month is John Cipora of St. Johnsbury. He wants to know: Why are child care professionals and early childhood educators paid so poorly in Vermont?

But there’s another story here, too. It’s about the professionals who take care of your kids – and educate them. 

“I think so often people do not recognize what it actually takes to be a great child care provider and educator,” says John Cipora of St. Johnsbury.

John is the person who led Brave Little State to this topic in the first place. Here on the show we answer questions about Vermont that have been submitted and voted on by you, our audience — because we want to make our journalism more inclusive, more transparent and more fun. 

John’s question is our latest winner:

“Why are child care professionals and early childhood educators paid so poorly in Vermont?”

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the median hourly wage for “child care workers” in Vermont is $13.27. That’s less than $30,000 a year. 

Compare that to dental hygienists — $32 an hour. Event planners, $21. Even the people who clean child care centers make more money.

“We have all these superb people who love children, care about them, care about making sure that they have the best possible lives,” John says. “But they make salaries that are kind of equivalent to, you know, fast food workers. And that's just unconscionable to me.”

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John's curiosity

John Cipora did not ask his question blindly. It turns out he’s in the early childhood education field, and he has a lot to say about it.

A sign in a door that says "Welcome Nina!"
Credit Nina Keck / VPR
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VPR
John kindly welcomes reporter Nina Keck.

He teaches a variety of online courses for Springfield College, which has a campus in St. Johnsbury. Brave Little State paid him a visit (and found a friendly “Welcome Nina” sign taped to his office door.)

You know right away that John’s job has to do with kids because of the way his office is decorated: There are paper cutouts from Where the Wild Things Are and a crazy assortment of toys and knick-knacks everywhere. There are some familiar characters: Mr. Potato Head, and Woody from Toy Story.

“Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Well that's not just a Woody doll. I mean, let's point out that's actually also a fan!” John jokes. “And it's got candy in the base. So it's, you know, it's a three-fer.”

The more we talk to John, the more his playfulness and passion for young children comes out. He doesn’t have kids of his own, but says after an early career as a builder and sculptor, he noticed how quickly his friends’ children were learning, and he became fascinated by the process.

“My primary focus is early childhood education courses,” he says. “That's what my degrees are in — at least, my master's and my doctorate. So that's what the college hired me for and that's where I get my primary professional pleasure.”

But John’s conflicted. 

“It's almost an ethical dilemma,” he says. 

A poster of "community helpers."
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
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VPR File
While some people dismiss early childhood education as "babysitting," our question-asker John thinks it's the "most vital field out there."

Because while he’s training people to go into a profession he cares deeply about — “They love children, they know a lot about children, maybe they want to open a center” — it’s a career that he knows will not provide his students with the credit or pay they deserve.

“The way the field is structured now, they’re going to struggle,” he laments.

He and others we talked to believe the field is at a tipping point. 

“For decades I've been hearing people say, ‘Oh, why do you do that field? It's just babysitting,’” John says. “And, of course, to me it's the most vital field out there — especially these days, in the era of the ubiquitous opioid crisis and all that.”

The Vermont Rural Life Survey

Most people in Vermont agree with John. That’s according to a recent poll conducted by VPR and Vermont PBS. The Vermont Rural Life Survey asked, “How important is it to provide more child care options in your community?” And 76 % of respondents said it was either very important or somewhat important.

“That’s pretty strong,” says Dr. Rich Clark, a professor of political science at Castleton University, and the director of the poll, which was conducted by Braun Research.

Clark says you can extrapolate that out to the entire state: Three quarters of Vermonters want more child care in their communities.

“It's for working parents that these issues really arise,” Clark notes.

Parents with a child under 5 years old were significantly more likely to say more child care is “very important” — which isn’t surprising. But the poll also showed a pretty well-distributed desire for more child care, across different age groups as well as different parts of the state.

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Credit Kyle Blair / Vermont PBS
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Vermont PBS

“That’s right,” Clark says. “We’re seeing very little differences by region.”

To go back to what our question-asker John pointed out, about the connection between child care and the opioid crisis, Rich Clark says this:

“Census data are telling us that the percentage of households where grandparents are raising grandchildren has increased over the past two decades. And we're also seeing that where opioids and the opiate problems are greatest, that that is even more prevalent.”

Child care was just a small part of the Vermont Rural Life Survey. The poll asked about everything from Vermonters’ quality of life to whether people could afford an unexpected expense of $1,000. You can find all the results, as well as a bunch of analysis, at thislandvt.org.

What's in a name?

John Cipora talked about this field being at a tipping point. And in our interviews for this episode, we heard about everything from funding and access to salaries and training opportunities. We’re going to get to all that. But on an even more basic level, those in the field say they need to figure out who they are and how they want to be known.

“What do we call people caring for our children today?” asks Aly Richards, CEO of Let’s Grow Kids, a nonprofit that’s pushing to create more high quality affordable child care in Vermont. (We should note: Let’s Grow Kids is a VPR underwriter.)

Richards and others we talked to say it’s time to clearly define — and even brand — this profession.

“Because what do we say? Day care operators, or child care providers or early childhood educators? Or, you know, pre-K teachers?” Richards says. “There's a whole gamut, and there's no general agreement upon what is sort of the term.”

A schedule for children.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
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VPR
Those in the child care field say they need to figure out who they are and how they want to be known.

The one thing people in the field do agree on?

“'Day care' is becoming a dirty word,” Richards says.

So maybe this is part of the answer to John’s question, about why wages for this work are so low. Because how are you supposed to fully value a profession if you don’t even know what to call it?

Aly Richards thinks the best term is “early childhood educators.”

“Which is exactly what they're doing. I’m a literal person,” she says with a laugh.

Parents can't pay more

”I think it’s hard to talk to an early educator without talking about salary,” says Beth Workman, the co-director of Robin’s Nest Children’s Center in Burlington. It’s a five star program that serves about 35 children, from infants to 5-year-olds.

Low salaries in Workman’s profession mean high turnover.

“Every day, we’re hearing about somebody who, the public school, or the elementary school, has grabbed up, because the wages are a little bit better," she says. "Somebody who could have been really a great 4-year-old teacher. And that's really hard to hear.”

“A little bit better” is an understatement. People working in private child care typically earn 30 to 50 percent less than people with similar qualifications working in public schools, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor.

And maybe you’re wondering: What’s so different about teaching 5-year-olds in kindergarten and teaching 4-year-olds at a child care center? Why the big pay gap? 

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Put simply, it’s all about funding.

Public schools are paid for by everyone, through taxes and state and federal subsidies. Paying for school teachers is considered a public good that we all chip in for. 

But child care is paid for mostly by parents — often younger parents who are just starting their careers. Plus, the younger your kid, the smaller the class size has to be. That makes child care more expensive, too.

A teddy bear on a cot.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
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VPR
Why is there a big pay gap between people who teach 4-year-olds at a child care center and people who teach 5-year-olds at a public school? It comes down to funding.

Then you’ve got a whole universe of licenses and qualifications that can differ between schools and child care centers, and who oversees them — not to mention all the different choices parents have for child care, from grandma down the street to a “five star” facility like Beth Workman’s. 

All of this adds up to a fragmented and expensive service. 

“A family with two kids in child care, if it's full time, they're probably paying at least $600 a week in childcare, between $500 and $600, I guess,” says Heather Martin, who operates an infant care program in Proctor called Baby Steps.

“It’s expensive,” she says. “I think actually child care is very often more expensive than a mortgage payment.”

Martin has been in the industry for 14 years, and she also works as an early childhood education consultant. She’s got four kids of her own, and says parents simply can’t afford to pay more.

And she’s right. A Blue Ribbon Commission report on child care found the estimated cost of high quality early care and learning is unaffordable for almost 90 % of Vermont families.

So, cost to families is a big reason salaries are low. The way Let’s Grow Kids puts it is: Parents can’t afford to pay more, and providers can’t afford to work for less.

More help for parents than providers

The state has taken some of this on. In 2014, Vermont lawmakers passed Act 166. It funds universal pre-kindergarten with a licensed teacher for 3- and 4-year-olds.

But it’s hard to say how that impacts child care salaries overall, because the state only funds 10 hours a week of pre-K during the school year. And it doesn’t impact kids younger than 3.

Now, there are also subsidies to help some parents: Head Start, which is federally funded, helps very low income families. And Vermont has a Child Care Financial Assistance Program that offers subsidies on a sliding scale to families who qualify.

That fund actually got a boost this year, when the Vermont Legislature approved a $7.4 million increase in state child care spending. It was the biggest increase in years.

Representative Theresa Wood led the effort to get this new funding. She says it had broad support in Montpelier.

“It was not a party issue at all,” Wood says. “You don’t see many things come through the Vermont Legislature that get a $7.4 million boost in one year.”

And some of the money is for raising payments to child care providers.

A woman pats the head of a sleeping child while another ducks under a window curtain behind her.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
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VPR
The Vermont Legislature approved a $7.4 million increase in state child care spending this year. It was the biggest increase in years, but there's wide agreement that it wasn't enough.

“And by our ability to pay child care providers more, we then in turn hope that they will pay their staff more,” Wood says.

Rep. Wood says she heard from families and child care professionals who say the extra funding is making a difference.

“Just after the new rates went into effect, I was in a room with providers and family members, and literally the whole buzz was about, ‘This is saving my business, this is making it much more affordable,’” Wood says.

But providers we talked to told us something different.

“It's not extra money in their pocket,” says Rosie Piontek, the director of development at the Vermont Achievement Center. 

“It just means less that a family would have to pay. So what that means is, rather than a $20 copay a parent might have, it might just be a $10 copay because you're qualified for more. But it doesn't mean the provider gets more. They charge a flat rate and that’s what it is, whether it comes from a provider or subsidy.”

High overhead

Outside on the Vermont Achievement Center’s playground, a little girl swings happily over freshly laid ground cover, letting out a Weee! with each swing.

The 3-year-old group is enjoying the beautiful weather — and the soft, squishy, specially formulated mulch on the playground.

Beth McKee, who heads up the early education program at the VAC, says they installed 40 tons of the material, which had to meet a long list of safety criteria. The price tag? $20,000.

Administrators say it’s just one of a long list of requirements that impact what they can pay staff.

A plat with an orange, zucchini, chicken fingers and ketchup and a cup of milk.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
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VPR

“On a day like today, we're sitting here in my office. Your [readers] don't know — it's really warm in here,” says Mitch Golub, the CEO of VAC. “And one of the reasons it's really warm in here is because licensing requires the floor to be at a certain temperature.”

The kids need to be warm. But VAC is in a big, old, inefficient building, so heating it is expensive. And then there are other standards.

“They have certain requirements for what they have for lunch, for what they have for snack, the kind of cots they have to sleep on,” Golub explains. “This is not a complaint. This is what makes it safe, what ensures quality. But it also makes it hard to come up and explain why it costs what it costs.”

How much funding is enough?

No one we talked to said that recent boost in state funding for child care — $7.4 million — was bad. But there’s also wide agreement that it’s not really enough.

What is enough? Well, let’s look at an estimate from the 2016 Blue Ribbon Commission report on Financing High Quality, Affordable Child Care. At that time, Vermont spent about $130 million total in state and federal money on early care and learning. Now, the commission also modeled what it would cost if Vermont were to go all-out with child care funding.

Like, best-case scenario:

“Access for all who need it, in a flexible environment, very high-quality with well-compensated professional wraparound services, nutrition, et cetera,” says Aly Richards of Let’s Grow Kids.

Richards says the commission found that Vermont would need to spend way more than $130 million a year to get everything on that wish list.

“They said the gap is about $206 million between what we pay today and what would cost to actually create this environment that we're talking about,” Richards says.

A woman leads children down an indoor hallway.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
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VPR
Vermont's Department for Children & Families is in year one of a five-year plan to redesign the state's Child Care Financial Assistance Program. But the plan isn't focused on wages specifically.

Richards knows an extra $206 million is a lot of money.

“But think about it like this," she says. "We spend $1.8 billion on K-through-12. And we spend $600 million through our agency of human services. And we spend $6 billion on health care.”

Now, there is an effort underway to continue to boost spending. Vermont’s Department for Children & Families is in year one of a five-year plan to redesign the state’s Child Care Financial Assistance Program. But this plan isn’t focused on wages specifically — so even if all the money comes through, it will only benefit child care workers indirectly.

In any case, Representative Theresa Wood says more public funding can’t be the only answer.

“It’s a problem that is large enough that no single solution is going to be the right solution,” Wood says. “And I think between the government, between the private sector and between philanthropy, we are all going to have to do our part in order to make this more affordable for Vermont’s families, and for supporting the workforce to earn a livable wage.”

So here’s where we’re at: There are many answers to John’s question about why child care professionals are paid so poorly. Lack of funding, fragmented oversight, lots of regulations and a lack of a cohesive professional identity.

The good news is that some people in this field are working on creative solutions.

What would help?

Castleton University, for example, just created a dual major for students in early childhood education and early childhood special ed. That program and others in Vermont are part of an effort to help set best practices and training requirements for the profession. 

Rick Reardon, the director of education at Castleton University, says they’re also trying to assist those already in the field with professional development.

“For three years in a row, we have held the Early Childhood Educators Institute,” Reardon says. “It's a four-day institute that aligns a lot of good work that's happening all over the state in the area with some credited coursework at either the graduate or undergraduate level.” 

Underwriters help cover some of the costs for that course — but it’s still a challenge for many to attend. Because unlike public school teachers who have in-service days, a lot of those working in child care have to fit training in on their own time.

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But Reardon believes it’s necessary to boost standards and wages.

"I think that's the only thing that's going to change the narrative with what they're being paid and why they're being paid that," he says.

Employers can help, too, says Caprice Hover, a former child care director who now heads the Rutland County United Way.

“If you have a couple of thousand dollars to match me on 403(b) [retirement account], could you give me that couple thousand dollars to help with housing or early education?”

Hover thinks more flexible benefits from companies would help young families and the child care professionals they need. 

“Because businesses want to support their employees,” Hover says. “But this would be a really different way to support your employee. How about subsidizing their [children’s] early education?”

And in Burlington, Robin’s Nest Children Center has been able to boost wages by incorporating a tiered tuition system. Here’s co-director Beth Workman:

“That first tier is our expected tuition, and that just about covers things. But then other parents who might be willing to spend a little bit more can do so, and all that additional money goes directly to our teachers.”

A woman plays with kids around a table with Legos.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
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VPR
Something that could help both parents and child care providers: companies offering flexible benefits, such as subsidizing child care.

Workman estimates that close to half of families choose to pay more. Which — no surprise — makes staff feel good. Workman says it has boosted morale and slowed turnover.

“Because early education is such an emotional field, that to say, 'We need more money,' feels awkward to us," she says.

But that’s something they need to get over, she says. Just like society needs to get over thinking it’s okay that female-dominated fields earn less.

“And so, in these power-to-the-profession conversations, that's something that's coming up," Workman says. "People are rising and saying what we need. And frankly, barely scraping by with a degree in hand and years of experience just doesn’t feel right anymore. And we’re starting to demand more of this profession.”

Right now, others are setting the rules for child care professionals. Sonja Raymond, executive director of the Vermont Association for the Education of Young Children, thinks that needs to change.

“It is up to us in the profession to decide, these are the roles we would hold, and this is the scope of practice that they can do, as well as, what are the competencies that we are required to meet,” Raymond says.

Plus, she says, they need to come up with a system to hold themselves accountable.

Aly Richards of Let’s Grow Kids thinks child care professionals could learn a thing or two from nurses.

“Decades ago, nurses were dismissed as pillow fluffers,” Richards says.

Now, though, nurses are seen as crucial to the health care system.

Richards and others say it’s time to build the same awareness of and respect for people who work in child care and early ed.

A woman stands in a pool watching over kids.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
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VPR
Child care advocates say we can pay now to increase quality early child care and education, or pay even more later if we don't.

Because, big picture? This isn’t just about wages for these folks. If the state wants young professionals to stay here — and move here — and fill critical jobs, pretty much everybody agrees that affordable high-quality child care is key. 

“Basically it's the age-old image of building a house,” Richards says. “You're creating your brain foundational architecture, or you're not.” 

Richards says the science also backs up the benefits of nurturing brains before the age of 5. 

“You're actually, between 0 and 5 [years old], creating your foundation for propensity or resiliency for addictive behaviors, chronic disease, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes.”

You read that right: How you're treated when you're a toddler impacts whether or not you might become addicted to opioids later in life.

“Yes,” Richards says. “Unequivocally, yes.”

Put another way, Richards and others say we can pay now to increase quality early child care and education — or pay even more later if we don’t.

A thin grey line.

Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public Radio. We have support from the VPR Innovation Fund. How can you support the show? Become a sustaining member of the station, or leave us a rating or review in your favorite podcast app.         

Our editor is Lynne McCrea and our theme music is Ty Gibbons. We have engineering support from Chris Albertine and our digital producer is Elodie Reed. Other music in this episode by Blue Dot Sessions:

  • "O' Holy Still"
  • "Matamoscas"
  • "Pavement Hack"

Special thanks to Melissa Riegel-Garrett and Matt Levin.

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