Why We Offer Paid Family Leave

Healthy children. Happy parents. A positive work culture. Engaged, productive and loyal employees who feel valued and supported to do their very best work. These are just a few of the many reasons the Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children chooses to offer paid family leave. We believe offering paid family leave is not only good for young children and their families—it’s good for Vermont overall.

Research documents that paid family and medical leave has health benefits for children and parents and also benefits employers via increased worker productivity and employee retention. But before getting into statistics, let’s consider how paid family leave impacted the life of one Vermonter—our Director of Innovation, Molly.

Molly is a hard-working, highly-valued employee. She’s the kind of passionate, talented and dedicated professional that a mission-driven organization like ours relies upon to get things done. Molly loves her job and it shows. The same can be said of her husband, Tom, who works full time at a nonprofit promoting a healthy environment. The couple shares a lifetime professional commitment to improving Vermont communities.

Molly and Tom also share another passion: family. They were already raising a 2-year-old and working hard to cover expenses when the couple discovered Molly was pregnant with twins. They considered the option of one parent dropping out of the workforce to take care of the children, but realized that would mean sacrificing income needed to support a growing family. For one of them, it would also have meant giving up valued work and falling behind in a career that took decades to build.

The Permanent Fund’s family leave policy made it possible for Molly to take the time she needed at home to bond with her newborn twins without sacrificing income or leaving a career she loved. Molly was able to take 12 weeks of fully paid leave and a second 12 weeks with 40% salary coverage. In addition, the Permanent Fund offers employees an annual child care scholarship of $2,500 per child, capping at $5,000.

When Molly returned to work, she was ready to dive back in with renewed commitment and enthusiasm. She continues to be a highly productive and engaged employee.

Molly’s story is just one example of how family-friendly work policies aren’t just good for employees–they’re also good for employers. In our case, 100% of parents who have taken leave have returned to work at the Permanent Fund, saving us costs in recruiting and training, as well as productivity lost during additional position vacancy.

We all agree that parents need to be able to care for and bond with newborn children, but the reality is that more than 70% of Vermont children under age 6 live in households with all of their parents in the workforce. Because they can’t access paid family leave, too many of these families are forced to choose between their natural desire to provide their children the best start in life and their ability to keep a good job and make ends meet. This problem is exacerbated by Vermont’s shortage of high-quality, affordable child care.

A study on the feasibility of a family and medical leave insurance program in Vermont, released last month by the Vermont Commission on Women, found that the implementation of a paid leave program could save Vermont more than $500,000 annually (as much as $270,000 from reduced public assistance among working women with a recent child birth in addition to almost $280,000 from healthcare savings due to an increased number of Vermont’s newborn infants who are healthy and have normal birthweights).

We need to ensure we have systems in place that allow Vermonters to balance work and family rather than forcing parents to choose between them. Access to paid family and medical leave, coupled with access to high-quality, affordable child care when parents return to work, would boost Vermont’s economy by attracting more young talented people to the state and encouraging young families to stay here, which ultimately helps attract new businesses and helps our current small business community thrive.

What does child care have to do with Vermont’s economy?

A new study, led by neuroscientists at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and Columbia University Medical Center, has shown that family income and parental education affect child and adolescent brain development. The study highlights that too many children are well-behind their peers in cognitive, social and emotional development by the time they reach the age of three. Having a significant segment of our young population not getting off to a strong start has serious budgetary and economic implications for Vermont.
 
The Permanent Fund is now focusing on the following four messages related to strengthening the Vermont economy:
 
1. Pay now or pay later. 
Health and human services-related costs have been far outpacing the rise in inflation and the growth of our economy. Special education costs alone have risen from approximately $150 million to $300 million in the last 20 years largely due to increased behavioral issues linked to social-emotional development, while general student enrollment was decreasing. Sound research has shown that high-quality early care and learning reduces the need for special education services. A recent study out of Duke University found that an investment of $1,100 per child in high-quality early care and education reduced children’s odds of needing special education by 39% in third grade.  This smart investment would allow us to save significantly on a wide variety of costs which are putting a tremendous strain on our state’s budget year after year.
 
2. Making Vermont the best place in the nation in which to raise a family is a savvy economic development strategy. 
Over the past 20 years, Vermont births have been steadily declining and enrollment in K-12 has decreased by 18,000 students. These are troubling statistics as we need more, not fewer, young people entering the state’s workforce and contributing to a strong economy. A system of high-quality, affordable child care will create a favorable environment for parents to have children and, as important, for those children to thrive. Chambers of Commerce tell us that when small businesses and young families are considering a move to Vermont, the top three questions they ask are related to the quality of our education system, the affordability of housing and access to high-quality, affordable child care.
 
3. Since our children will become the engine that drives the economy, we cannot afford to give up on any of them.
We know that 90% of the core development of a child’s brain occurs by the age of five and that, by far, the highest return on investment in education is in the very early years. When children show up at kindergarten prepared for school they have a chance to have success in school, continue on to higher education and contribute to a skilled workforce. We are at a point now in Vermont when we must pay attention to the research and invest our available funds where they will produce the highest returns.
 
4. Access to high-quality, affordable child care contributes to workforce development. 
We can’t be our best at work if we’re worried about who is going to care for our children. Vermont businesses’ ability to recruit and retain productive employees is greatly enhanced when parents in the workforce have access to high-quality, affordable child care.
 
In addition to the public awareness efforts of Let’s Grow Kids and the systems-building work of Vermont Birth to Five, here are two areas of innovation where we will focus in 2017:
 
1. The early childhood professional as a key member of the population health care team.
By recognizing that child care providers can play a critical role in the health of children and even their families, we make it possible to both streamline services and cut down on health care costs down the road. For more on the connection between high-quality child care and cost effective approaches to health care, go to: http://www.permanentfund.org/healthcare-integration/.
 
Alan Guttmacher, recent director of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), has joined the Permanent Fund team and will assist Aly Richards, our CEO, in forwarding this effort. With his extensive experience in pediatric research and commitment to improving health outcomes for children and families, we are so lucky to have Alan working with us on this important initiative.
 
2. The Shared Services model as a way to make child care more cost effective. 
Vermont, as a small, rural state with small and widely-dispersed child care programs, is challenged to take advantage of the cost-efficiencies associated with larger child care centers. A Shared Services Network is a community-based partnership comprised of child care programs working together to share services such as bookkeeping, billing and collections, purchasing, insurance, access to nurses, mental health consultants and substitutes.
 
Our focus on a statewide systems change presents quite different challenges than investing individually in good programs and requires a determined patience. At the same time, our short, now 8-year, timeframe creates a sense of urgency for the Permanent Fund team and all associated with this movement. We would not have begun to accomplish what we have without the enduring commitment of our supporters and now, more than ever, we appreciate that continued support.
 
There is a noticeable buzz and increase in momentum in the child care movement from where we were a year ago. Aly will keep you up to date on the details of Permanent Fund progress as we work toward our goal of all Vermont children having access to high-quality, affordable early care and learning by the year 2025.

Linking Climate Change and Early Childhood Development

I was greatly honored when I heard I would receive the Vermont Lifetime Achievement Award from the Vermont Council on Rural Development (VCRD). But I was surprised when I realized I would be accepting this award during the organization’s second Summit on Vermont’s Climate Economy. What would someone from an organization that has made high-quality early childhood education its mission say to a group of climate change advocates? After learning the Summit’s theme was “Ideas to Action,” I understood the parallels between the Permanent Fund’s work and the climate summit. The two are more closely related than one might think.

children at play on beach

Climate science and brain science: Neither is rocket science

Climate science is credible, reliable and offers a clear picture of what contributes to our changing climate and how we can reverse the trend. The brain science is equally compelling, irrefutable and offers a clear blueprint for a child’s healthy brain development and what contributes to unhealthy development. Amazingly, the brain science shows us that 80% of a child’s brain is developed by the age of three—telling us that we must act in the very early years to get it right.

Inaction or missteps will lead to serious consequences

There are serious consequences for Vermont if we don’t reverse the effects of climate change. More extreme weather events (think, Tropical Storm Irene) are an example. In early childhood, our extreme weather event is represented by the dramatic increase in special education costs, which have increased by $137 million, a doubling in the last 15 years, while enrollment has decreased by 20,000 students. Early identification of developmental delays and improved nutrition can help. We must work to identify at-risk children earlier—from birth to five—so we can start services earlier when the developing brain and body are most receptive to these interventions. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, starting services earlier can in some cases reduce the need for costly services during the school years or eliminate the need for them altogether.

We’re on an unsustainable path

With climate change, melting glaciers and rising waters tell us that we are not on a sustainable path. With early childhood development, nearly 50% of our kids are showing up at kindergarten “not ready to learn” and it’s likely that same 50% are not going on to college. Like other rural states, Vermont has one of the highest rates in the nation of kids not going to college! This is not sustainable. With an aging demographic in Vermont, we cannot afford to give up on any of our children. We need all of them in a trained workforce contributing to a healthy economy.

Time is of the essence: Act now or pay (much more) later

With climate change, we cannot afford to wait—we have to act now. The same is true of early childhood development in Vermont—it is no longer a case of whether or not we can afford to make these strategic investments in the early years….we cannot afford not to make them. We must act now or we will pay dearly later. We know that the investment we make during the earliest years of life (from birth to age five) will provide a much greater return than any dollars we invest later.

One difference between climate change and early childhood

While the work Vermont is doing on climate change is extremely important and we SHOULD be a leader in addressing this issue, the effects of climate change are largely influenced by the actions of other states and other countries. The environmental and economic impacts of climate change pose global challenges. With early childhood development in Vermont, we have full control of our destiny. By following the science, making smart, strategic investments in the early years and acting swiftly, we will improve outcomes for all our children and create a healthier Vermont.

Building stronger communities

While on the surface we may seem like different organizations, both the VCRD and the Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children are working toward the same end: building stronger, more sustainable, Vermont communities. The success of both organizations relies on bringing great ideas to the table, pulling together the right people and organizations and developing collaborations and partnerships to turn “Ideas to Action.”

 

Comparison Table between Climate Change and Child Care

Click on the image to download a PDF file.

Earning a Greater Return on Our Educational Investment

PreK_children2_mixed-largeIn Vermont we have seen education costs rise, while our student population has decreased by 23,000 students since 1997. The steepest increase in costs has been for special education. Outside of teacher salaries and benefits, special education costs represent a lion’s share of our school budgets.

Vermont’s Agency of Education reports that while the share of federal funding for special education stagnated between fiscal years 2001 and 2014, Vermont’s share of costs have more than doubled from $137,789,654 to $271,185,794.

Nationally, we know it costs about twice as much to educate a student who requires special education services versus a student who does not. I believe we can reduce these costs while improving outcomes for all children.

Start earlier: Learning begins at birth
infant-adult-handAm I suggesting we cut special education? Absolutely not! Special education programs serve our most vulnerable children. But we do have an opportunity to make these services far more effective.

By identifying at-risk children earlier and starting services earlier, we have the greatest opportunity to improve outcomes for these children and the potential to reduce costs over the long-term.

Here’s why: From birth to age five, a child’s brain is developing most rapidly, making connections and building a foundation for skills that will serve them for a lifetime. If we miss these most receptive stages of development, a child may find it more difficult to learn particular skills later. The greatest return on any investment comes in these early years when the brain is most ready to learn.

Here are a few Vermont stats to put this in perspective:

  • Only 26% of Vermont children age 0 to 3 receive all three recommended developmental screenings by age three. We can change that.
  • 20,000 young children spend a portion of their day outside their home in the care of someone else. And, only 24.1% of Vermont’s regulated care and education programs are designated as high-quality programs (a 4- or 5-level rating in STARS or national accreditation). We must build quality into the early care and education system.
  • In 2013-14, less than half (49%) of Vermont children were deemed ready for kindergarten in all areas of health and development. High-quality early care and education programs will ensure that more of our children are ready to learn.

A recent North Carolina study suggests that state-supported high-quality early childhood programs can reduce special education costs and reduce the number of special ed placements, providing great cost savings to school districts. In the study, an investment of $1,100 per child (made during the early years) reduced third grade students’ odds of needing special education placement by 39%.

While early intervention will not eliminate the need for special education entirely, studies have shown that starting these services earlier can make a difference. Such services can lessen the need for more intensive, and more costly, services later, or, in some cases, can eliminate the need for special services altogether.

Gaining a greater return on our educational investment

We can tackle the quality and cost challenges by reframing how we define public education. By providing high-quality programs and services starting at birth, during the most crucial years of development, we can ensure that all children receive the support they need to develop a solid foundation for their future cognitive, social and emotional development.

Strong communities and a healthy economy are based on the well-being and health of our children. After all, if we want our children to be productive members of society as adults, we must invest in them while they’re young.

Making a Difference in the Lives of Children

infant-adult-handOne thing I’ve discovered over the years is that seemingly small efforts can make a huge difference in someone’s life.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I came to Vermont from New York City in 1996 with my husband and infant son to take a job in higher education. At the time, I was focused on my growing family and my job. Like most working parents, this consumed my time and energy.

As my children grew, I looked for a way to give back to the community. Working with young children was important to me.

Finding a way to give back

In 2006, David Leatherwood, Robin Shield and I founded the Children’s Fund, a component fund of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation that focuses on children in the Upper Valley. We invest in charities that work with at-risk children and provide support to help them build their self-esteem through sports and outdoor activities.

Last year, I also joined the board of the Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children. I was attracted to the Permanent Fund because of its unique approach and focus on very young children. The Permanent Fund works through focused initiatives (Vermont Birth to Three, Vermont Community Preschool Collaborative and Let’s Grow Kids) and brings together (and collaborates with) other funders to make strategic, systemic change in Vermont’s early care and education system.

Stories of courage and making a difference

When I am asked why I choose to invest in children, I like to share a couple of stories.
One story is about a middle school aged girl who lived with her aunt and uncle because her own parents couldn’t take care of her. The Children’s Fund provided funding for running shoes and coaches for her school cross country team. Despite the adversity and challenges she faced in her young life, this student found a sense of purpose through running. Now, the running shoes alone didn’t make the difference—she had the resilience and courage within herself—the shoes simply helped make it possible for her to run. Support from our foundation, a compassionate coach and loving aunt and uncle helped her build her self-confidence and overcome adversity in her life.

Another story comes from our work with an organization called WISE. WISE provides advocacy, crisis services and community education to those affected by domestic and sexual violence. WISE works with students and schools to prevent violence before it affects young lives. Last year through support from the Children’s Fund, WISE was able to engage students in every middle and high school across seven school districts in the greater Upper Valley. After learning about WISE during a classroom presentation, a student shared with her principal that she and her mom were living in a domestic abuse situation. It took a lot of strength and courage for her to share this experience with anyone. As a result of this student stepping forward, WISE was able to provide support to the girl and her mother and continues to help them through a very complicated and difficult situation.

The resilience of children

I’ve learned through the Children’s Fund that children can be incredibly resourceful and resilient. Although the Children’s Fund tends to reach them when they are a little older, I know from my work with the Permanent Fund that providing safe, healthy and nurturing environments during the earliest years can prevent the need for help later. Right now, I’m lucky enough to work with children of all ages.

So why invest in kids: because of their amazing capacity to be courageous, hopeful and resilient; because they are the future; because they deserve the best life has to offer.
If you’d like to make a difference for children, I offer this guidance: Identify where you can make a difference. Start small. Work with others who share that passion. You’ll be amazed at the difference it can make.

Permanent Fund Board Member Jenny Williams is a joint venture partner to Norwich Partners and is executive director of the Children’s Fund in Lebanon, NH. This article also appeared in the Champlain Business Journal.