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Poll: Vermonters Support More State Funding For Child Care

A multi-colored sign reads Lets Grow Kids against a brick building wall
Elodie Reed
/
VPR
Lets Grow Kids has advocated for more state spending in support of expanding child care access for several years. The pandemic has highlighted unmet need across the state, and reframed the demand as a widespread economic need.

A new poll commissioned by one of the state’s leading child care advocacy organizations shows broad public support for increased state funding for Vermont’s child care system.

Let’s Grow Kids has spent the last five years urging elected officials to improve access to child care by increasing wages for educators and boosting subsidies to families.

Aly Richards, CEO of Let’s Grow Kids, says the coronavirus pandemic has presented the most compelling case yet for new public investments in Vermont’s child care infrastructure. And she said a survey of 500 Vermonters conducted last month indicates the public is on board with increased state appropriations.

“COVID surfaced that for everyone,” Richards said. “We all got this gut punch — we got a front row seat to what we are talking about here. Not only is child care essential to reopening our economy, we literally can’t have folks working if they don’t have a place for their children to be, in a high-quality, safe setting.”

The poll, conducted by Hart Research Associates in November, found that 79% of Vermonters think “high-quality, affordable child care” is either “essential” or “very important” for the state’s ability “to reopen the economy and get people back to work.”

"We need child care in order to be here to be the child care, and so it just feels like this terrible tower of dominoes that could fall at any moment.” - Rachel Aldrich, Montpelier kindergarten teacher

The poll found that 78% of respondents favor increasing state funding to ensure “there are enough affordable, high-quality child care programs in Vermont for children under age five.”

Richards and other advocates are hoping Gov. Phil Scott and lawmakers have that statistic top of mind when they convene the 2021 legislative session next month. According to Richards, increasing state funding is the only way to address the access and affordability issues that plague many Vermont parents.

“And so what this is about is saying, ‘The time is now, we’re digging deep, we have to find that revenue to truly fund this system,’” Richards said.

The Scott administration has already shown a willingness to use public funds to address gaps in Vermont’s child care system. Since March, Scott has funneled more than $50 million in federal coronavirus relief funds toward child care, to stabilize a system upended by the pandemic.

Melissa Riegel-Garrett, policy director for the Child Development Division at the Department for Children and Families, said the tactic worked: the reduction in child care capacity in Vermont hasn’t been as severe as other states have seen.

More from VPR: New Child Care Hubs Give Families An Option During Remote Learning

Richards said she agrees with Riegel-Garrett’s analysis.

“We actually had one of the best state responses to COVID,” Richards said.

Still, between September of 2019 and September of 2020, Vermont saw the number of regulated child care programs drop from 1,027 to 992, according to data at the Department for Children and Families. And the total number of licensed child care slots fell from 17,643 to 16,210.

Over the past year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 2 million women have dropped out of the U.S. labor force. Experts say many of them have left their jobs as a result of losing child care due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Rachel Aldrich, a kindergarten teacher at Union Elementary School in Montpelier, said she and her colleagues are dealing with all manner of pandemic-induced child care dilemmas.

Aldrich’s 3-year-old daughter, Francis, goes to a home daycare in Montpelier.

“We have had a couple of times this year where she’s had to close kind of unexpectedly due to a kind of COVID scare,” Aldrich said.

"We are definitely in an environment right now where we have to be fiscally responsible too." - Melissa Riegel-Garrett, Department for Children and Families

Since she and her husband, who’s also a teacher,  can’t call on family or friends anymore to help out in a pinch — it would require the whole family to quarantine — Aldrich said they’ve had to scramble.

“And scrambling for us basically means, like, rock, paper, scissors as to who stays home and does that,” Aldrich said.

Aldrich counts herself as lucky. She said she’s seen colleagues who’ve had to contend with far worse.

Aldrich said she understands the economic imperative for schools to stay open during the pandemic.

“But we are also parents and caregivers,” Aldrich said. “And we need child care in order to be here to be the child care, and so it just feels like this terrible tower of dominoes that could fall at any moment.”

Riegel-Garrett is one of the administration officials who’ll be shaping the governor’s budget priorities next year. She’s been in the child care sector since graduating from UVM with a degree in early childhood education in 1992.

“What COVID has really done is thrown us bit of a curveball,” Riegel-Garrett said. “Everything we really knew and understood about our system, it’s shifted and changed.”

She said shifts that have occurred as a result of COVID-19 may endure even after the pandemic is gone.

More from NPR: Day Care, Grandparent, Pod Or Nanny? How To Manage The Risks Of Pandemic Child Care

“What’s the impact going to be of things like remote work?” Riegel-Garrett said. “Will there be businesses that will shift more to and stay with this remote work environment, and how will that impact folks and their child care needs?”

Riegel-Garret said the governor understands as well as anyone that Vermont can’t realize its economic potential unless parents have a safe place to leave their kids when they go to work.

“There’s been this massive shift in understanding about the importance that this system has for our state. And we’re seeing change,” Riegel-Garrett said.

Let’s Grow Kids and the coalition it represents, however, are looking for funding sources on the order of $200 million a year — the amount of additional state funding a special commission said it would cost to ensure affordable access to quality care for every parent that needs it.

"There's been this massive shift in understanding about the importance that this system has for our state. And we're seeing change." - Melissa Riegel-Garrett, Department For Children and Families

And Riegel-Garrett said Vermont’s funding capacity is limited by taxpayers’ ability to pay.

“And we are definitely in an environment right now where we have to be fiscally responsible too,” she said. “We are in the middle of crunching our numbers for the budget. And the governor will give his budget address right on track in January. And what those investments look like will be unveiled at that point.”

Michele Asch is vice-president of leadership at TwinCraft Skincare, which employs 300 people at its manufacturing facilities in Essex and Winooski. Asch said she’s seen employees leave her company as a result of their inability to secure child care. And she said lack of access to affordable child care has exacerbated Vermont’s workforce shortage.

“I just had a meeting with a peer group of women business owners, and it’s a common problem: we can’t find enough employees,” Asch said. “And I believe that part of the reason is a lack of child care.”

Asch, who also serves on the board of Let’s Grow Kids, said pouring unprecedented sums of public money into child care isn’t so much a cost as an investment.

She said on the child care issue, lawmakers and the governor will find willing partners in the business community, even if it means raising new revenues.

“I think where they will be surprised is the broad level of support that Vermont businesses are going to have for creating a fix for the child care system,” Asch said.

More from Brave Little State: Why Are Child Care Professionals Paid So Poorly In Vermont?

Brattleboro Rep. Emilie Kornheiser said child care has jumped to the top of the legislative priority list for lawmakers across the political spectrum.

“In some ways similar to broadband, I think there’s really broad bipartisan support about doing something, and doing something soon,” Kornheiser said.

As a member of the House Committee on Ways and Means, Kornheiser will be among the lawmakers working to identify new funding streams for child care investments.

“We know one of the problems is wages [for child care workers], and that they need to go up,” Kornheiser said. “And we know that those wages can’t improve on the backs of the parents that are paying for care, because there’s just no space there.”

Kornheiser, however, said it’s still unclear where money will come from to make meaningful improvements to the system.

“I think with so much unknown about what future COVID relief packages might look like and what our revenue picture is going to be like as a state, I think there’s a lot that still needs to be seen."

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Peter Hirschfeld @PeteHirschfeld.

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UPDATE: This story previously misspelled the name of the research firm that conducted the poll, and also misidentified Michele Asch's title at Twincraft Skincare

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