In 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
Am 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.
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.
In our last post summarizing the highlights of 2014, I shared a major decision that the board of the Permanent Fund made that will affect how we move forward over the next 10 years. In our decision to spend down our endowment and “put all our chips on the table,” our board is communicating a sense of urgency in our work. We strongly believe there is no time to waste as we work to transform Vermont’s early care and education system and give all Vermont children a solid start in life. As board member Tom MacLeay said in a previous post: “The greatest opportunity we have to improve our economy and our community in so many ways is in how we support and invest in our youngest citizens.”
The real gamble, if you will, is in not making these strategic early investments. Fasten your seatbelts, as you read what we’ve got on the plate for this year, you’ll see, it is: Full. Speed. Ahead.
VB3 and VCPC to merge: Continued emphasis on quality
To increase their efficiency and effectiveness, plans are underway to merge our Vermont Birth to Three (VB3) and the Vermont Community Preschool Collaborative initiatives. A new name and a more public announcement will be forthcoming, but those who have worked with either team can continue to expect an emphasis on the importance of high quality in early care and education. VB3 will continue to provide incentives, mentoring and training for child care professionals to gain credentials and achieve high quality ratings through many services. And VCPC will continue to provide technical assistance to school districts and child care providers as Vermont implements the universal preschool law. Both teams are committed to strengthening our network of home-based, center-based and school-based early care for all Vermont children from birth to five.
New partnership with the health care community
In an effort to align our work with that of the health care community, VB3 will partner with the Vermont Child Health Improvement Project (VCHIP) to improve early identification and response to potential developmental delays. Child care professionals are in a unique position to identify potential developmental issues in the children in their care. They see the children and families year-round, five days a week and have established trusting relationships with the families they serve. VCHIP will provide training to support registered and licensed child care professionals in using developmental screening within their programs.
Let’s Grow Kids has been working with many individuals and organizations in the early childhood community to clearly define high quality care—what it is and what it looks like. At the same time, they’ve been working to garner support for the formation of a Blue Ribbon Commission that would study the costs of providing high quality, affordable child care and research how to fund it in a sustainable manner. Affordability and quality are two key issues that we must tackle in our quest to develop an early care and education system that benefits all Vermont children.
(While on the theme of affordability, we’re also researching the potential of privately-funded scholarships for child care, including what has worked well in other states. Stay tuned for more on this.)
New tools for tracking early childhood data
We know that children who arrive in kindergarten “ready to learn” are much more likely to experience success later in life. The Kindergarten Readiness Survey is one tool for assessing whether or not our children are prepared for kindergarten. Unfortunately, the tool is not used in a uniform way by every Vermont teacher. That’s why we’re advocating for a credible, reliable, and universally-applied Kindergarten Readiness Survey and continuing to explore other viable measurement tools from birth to five so that we can measure a child’s progress before entering preschool.
New pilot projects in the works
You may have seen Burlington Mayor Weinberger’s February announcement about the launch of a pilot project in Burlington, which is designed to improve kindergarten readiness, reduce special education costs and other public spending and help break the cycle of multi-generational poverty in Vermont’s Queen City. We were happy to provide funding to support this exciting launch and it inspired us to explore the possibility of piloting a similar project in a rural Vermont community. The hope is that these pilots, while collecting good data, will demonstrate the benefits of strategic early investments, connecting high quality experiences to successful childhood outcomes.
Why babies matter to business
We travel around the state talking to CEOs and HR professionals about why babies—and quality childcare—are important to economic development and a company’s bottom line. Surveys have shown that businesses that offer child care as a benefit to their employees experience increased productivity. After all, when parents know their children are well cared for, they can focus on their jobs without worrying about how their children are spending their time. These children are also our future workers. Giving them a solid start in life through quality care and nurturing environments supports their healthy development socially, emotionally, physically and cognitively—skills that will help ensure their future success. This year, we plan to develop several models of business-supported child care and promote these concepts to Vermont businesses.
Recognizing the work of early educators
You may have heard that the Permanent Fund announced the Early Educator of the Year award, an annual award established to recognize the important work of early educators—our children’s first teachers—and educate Vermonters that education does indeed begin at birth. We received many nominations for outstanding home-based child care professionals—those that go above and beyond for our children. The nomination period for 2015 is now closed and nominees must submit an application by May 31 to be considered for the award. We plan to announce the top two individuals in October at the annual VAEYC conference.
This year is shaping up to be a busy one and we’re excited to see how everything unfolds. Be sure to subscribe to our blog to continue to receive our updates and be on the lookout for the next issue of our newsletter.
When I am out and about talking to folks, I like to refer to Vermont’s “bright spots”—processes, projects and collaborations that are working well in our early care and education system. As I prepared a recent communication to the Permanent Fund board, I was pleased to report on many “bright spots” that we were able to celebrate during the past year and I wanted to share them here.
Welcome to a new board member
Dr. Breena Holmes, director of Maternal and Child Health in Vermont and chair-elect of the National Council on School Health for the American Academy of Pediatrics, joined the Permanent Fund board. Breena is on the pediatric faculty at the University of Vermont College of Medicine and is a key figure in Vermont’s early childhood movement. In just a short time, Breena has already contributed by helping us forge a partnership between Vermont Birth to Three and the Vermont Health Department on an exciting provider training initiative related to developmental screenings.
New leadership and growth for Vermont Birth to Three
Becky Gonyea joined Vermont Birth to Three in April as our new executive director. Under Becky’s leadership, Vermont Birth to Three met the goal of having 75% of home-based child care providers participate in the STARS quality rating system–up from 38% at the beginning of 2014!
Universal pre-K passed
The Vermont pre-K bill (Act 166) passed by the Vermont Legislature last year will make Vermont the first state in the nation to offer universal pre-K for both 3- and 4-year-olds. We will be very much involved in the implementation via the Vermont Community Preschool Collaborative as they work with many Vermont communities identified as “early adopters” of universal pre-K.
Vermont received Federal pre-K expansion grant
We provided funding for a professional grant writer who successfully competed for a Federal pre-K expansion grant. As a result, Vermont will receive up to $33 million to build capacity for low income children to attend full-day preschool. (This is in addition to our successful Race to the Top/Early Learning Challenge grant last year in the amount of $37 million.)
Strengthening Families training grant
The Child Development Division awarded us $1.02 million to implement Strengthening Families training for home-based child care professionals in six regions over the next three years. This supports our two-generational approach to child care: Well-trained child care professionals, who see families twice a day, five days a week, are in a unique position to develop the critical trust and relationships that enable them to have meaningful engagement with parents.
We successfully launched the Let’s Grow Kids public education and awareness campaign that aims to raise understanding about the importance of the first five years of development in a child’s life. More than 3,000 Vermonters have signed the LGK pledge, indicating their support to giving every Vermont child a strong start in life. More than 200 volunteers signed up to speak at Town Meetings across the state, educating their neighbors about the impact of the first five years on cognitive, social and emotional development.
Vermont’s preschool census grows
The Vermont Community Preschool Collaborative supported 21 projects, serving 23 communities and adding more than 400 preschool children to the school census in the fall of 2014.
Increased funding capacity
We’ve increased our funding capacity from $1 million per year in recent years to $3 million per year. When combined with the support of our funding partners, Permanent Fund projects will total more than $5 million this year.
Laying the foundation for the next ten years
Last year, our board also made an important decision that will affect how we move forward. While we are still investing in our communities and nonprofit organizations, we have placed a priority on funding and operating our own initiatives with a concentrated focus on the next ten years. In doing so, we’ve reframed our mission: “To assure that every Vermont child has access to high quality and affordable early care and education—by the year 2025.”
What does this mean?
Placing a 10-year time frame on our mission creates a sense of urgency and reminds us that we do not have a moment to waste. We will spend down our endowment and put all of our chips on the table during the next 10 years. The science and research tells us that building a strong foundation in the early years of our children’s lives is too important of an issue for Vermont to wait—we must seize the moment.
Working in close collaboration with our funding partners, especially the Turrell Fund and the A.D. Henderson Foundation, we will continue to develop and expand our board of directors and will develop a 10-year strategic plan to reflect this change in mission. We are also continuing our search for an executive director to serve as the CEO and help lead this effort.
Building on the bright spots
These are what I saw as the many “bright spots” of 2014—each and every one a cause for celebration no doubt. Despite this progress, however, the heavy lifting is not done.
We’d like to see Vermont build upon what’s working well as we all work toward that ultimate “bright spot”—a high quality and affordable early care and education that gives all Vermont children the opportunity to succeed in life.