Philanthropy as a Change Agent: Creating a Sustainable, High-quality 0-5 System

The September 2017 issue of the Preschool Development Grants Newsletter featured columnist this month was Aly Richards, CEO of the Permanent Fund. In this column, Aly illustrates the way in which the state’s critical partnership with a private partner has leveraged philanthropy for long-term systemic and sustainable change in Vermont.

Philanthropy as a change agent: Creating a sustainable, high-quality 0-5 system 
By Aly Richards, CEO of the Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children

The Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children has identified a leverage point for long-children on playgroundterm, transformational change in Vermont. It starts with unlocking the biggest potential within our small state and smallest citizens—our children. The Permanent Fund’s mission is to ensure that every child from birth to five in Vermont has access to high-quality, affordable early care and learning by 2025 in a self-sustaining system. The fact that we’ve committed 100 percent of our resources to this single issue and have given ourselves a deadline brings urgency and focus to our work, which is key to successfully using philanthropy as a change agent for strategic, systemic, sustainable change.

The Permanent Fund and our initiatives act as a private partner to the state, leveraging philanthropy to improve the systems we have today while building sustainable systems for the future. One powerful example of what this looks like in practice is the Vermont Community Preschool Collaborative (VCPC) project, which was instrumental in creating a tipping point that made passage of Vermont’s universal pre-K law, Act 166, possible.

When we launched VCPC with our collaborating funders the Turrell Fund and the A.D. Henderson Foundation in 2005, it was voluntary for school districts to offer pre-k, and the total enrollment in Vermont for prekindergarten and prekindergarten special education was 2,500 children. Vermont’s school funding formula allowed school districts to count pre-k children in their census, but a serious deterrent remained: schools had to average their numbers for two years before receiving any public education dollars. This meant there were no incentives or resources to start up programs. VCPC provided bridge funding and guidance for those initial two years, allowing school districts to start up quality programs in partnership with community based child care programs without asking for budget increases.

Over a 10-year period, VCPC worked with local communities, providing start up grants and technical assistance to help establish public school/child care partnerships. By the close of the 2014-2015 school year, more than 6,200 children were enrolled in high-quality prekindergarten education programs around the state. We’d reached a critical mass and Vermont’s governor at the time recognized that access to high-quality preschool had become an equity issue – whether or not a child had access depended on where they lived and this was unacceptable.

In 2014, Vermont achieved a major milestone with the passage of Act 166, requiring universal access to high quality prekindergarten education for ten hours a week for three- and four-year-olds at no cost to the family. During the 2015–2016 school year, with only 30% of school districts voluntarily participating during the partial implementation phase of Act 166, 1,045 new children accessed high-quality pre-K programs, bringing the total number of Vermont children in pre-K up to about 7,300. We expect that number will go up when we have complete 2016–2017 data showing participation during the first year of full implementation, now estimated at 8,300 students, or almost 70% of the eligible population. VCPC created the forum in communities for discussions between school districts and community based child care programs and continues to provide start up grants and technical assistance to support full implementation of Act 166.

The work of VCPC and continued implementation of Act 166 is not only increasing access to prekindergarten education, it’s increasing the quality of programs available to Vermont’s youngest children. In order to receive Act 166 funding, a program must have achieved 4 or 5 stars (or 3 stars with a plan to achieve 4 or 5 stars) from the STep Ahead Recognition System (known as STARS), Vermont’s QRIS program. The state is making a point of investing in high-quality programs.

While Act 166 stands as a historic achievement, universal pre-K must be seen as part of a broader, ongoing effort by the government, philanthropists and many other cross-sector partners to ensure that all young children in Vermont have access to high quality early learning and development opportunities.

Much work remains. We know 70% of Vermont children under age 5 have all available Provider_with_childparents in the workforce. We also know, through our own supply and demand analysis, that 79% of Vermont’s infants and toddlers likely to need care don’t have access to high-quality, affordable early care and education. Infant care is particularly scarce; in some counties over 90% of infants likely to need care don’t have access to high-quality programs. Parents who are lucky enough to find it are spending up to 40 percent of their household income on child care. Meanwhile, the average Vermont child care provider earns an annual salary of just $26,650, which is not a livable wage. With the Vermont Community Preschool Collaborative project, we leveraged philanthropy to create a tipping point that led to a major public policy shift and that’s exactly what we’re trying to do on a grand scale so we can achieve high-quality, affordable early care and learning for ALL Vermont children birth to five by 2025. We’re tackling this problem with three interwoven initiatives:

  • Building a movement: Let’s Grow Kids is our statewide public education and citizen advocacy campaign. Since its launch in 2014, Let’s Grow Kids has employed multi-channel marketing, grassroots organizing and legislative advocacy to educate Vermonters about the importance of early childhood development, the critical shortage of high-quality early care and learning programs in our state and the social and economic benefits Vermont stands to gain if we invest in giving children a strong start. The campaign is building public will to support sustainable increased public investments in high-quality, affordable child care. Learn more at www.letsgrowkids.org.
  • Building lasting systems: Vermont Birth to Five (VB5), home to our Vermont Community Preschool Collaborative Project, is building capacity and strengthening the quality of early care and education in Vermont. Through close collaboration with state agencies and community organizations, VB5 directly engages child care providers in projects designed to improve program quality. Since 2011, VB5’s work has helped increase participation in STARS from 15% of home-based providers to nearly 75%. VB5’s projects include: One-on-one mentoring; training and professional development; assistance in partnering with public schools; strategies for increasing access to care; models for comprehensive family supports; and methods for sustainable business practices. Learn more at www.vermontbirthtofive.org.
  • Research and development: Through the Permanent Fund’s Innovative Community Strategies Incubator, we pilot and evaluate new strategies for positive impact, then embed them as appropriate into the work of Let’s Grow Kids, Vermont Birth to Five or other sustainable organizations. Learn more at www.permanentfund.org.

Just like raising a child takes a village, transforming how we think about early care and education requires everyone to come to the table. That’s why the Permanent Fund has assembled bipartisan, cross-sector support — philanthropic organizations, government, business, health care, and community nonprofits — to ensure success.