The Access and Quality Gap in Vermont’s Child Care System

Most people agree that “choice” is a good thing. But when it comes to choosing a child care provider, many Vermont parents may not feel like they have much choice available to them. And that’s something we need to change.PreK_children2_mixed-large

In a rural state access to child care is a challenge

In a previous post, PF board member Jenny Williams shared her struggle to find quality child care when she moved to Vermont some years ago. It remains a struggle for many working parents today.

We know from our experience talking with parents that they tend to look for a provider they’ve heard about from friends or family, or is close to their home or convenient to their workplace. In many of Vermont’s small communities there may be only a handful of providers—some licensed, some not. Many of the higher quality providers have waiting lists or are simply unaffordable to families. (Did you realize that many working families spend from 27 to 33% of their total income to pay for child care?) So parents end up patching together child care options, trying to make it work for their family.

Early experiences build the foundation for life

In Vermont, 72% of our children under the age of 6 have both parents in the workforce. That means children may spend 40 hours per week or more in the care of someone else.
We know that during these earliest years the brain is developing most rapidly—forming 700 to 1000 neural connections a second. Never again will the brain undergo a period of such rapid development. These connections are building a foundation for cognitive and social-emotional skills that will serve a child for their lifetime. If we don’t provide the early experiences and environments to help our children build a firm foundation early in life, when the brain is most pliable, it’s much harder to do so later and we end up paying more as a society.

When we look at child care through this lens, providing every family with access to quality child care is an issue that affects us all.

Defining quality child care

What does quality look like? I offer these descriptions:

  • Trained, professional workforce. Child care providers should be well trained and fairly paid for the important job they are doing—they are, after all, our children’s first teachers after parents. They should have a deep understanding of child development. Quality programs and providers provide a responsive, nurturing environment that feeds the child’s developing brain.
  • Consistent standards and quality outcomes. Providers should follow consistent standards that set high expectations and promote different age-appropriate approaches to learning, social-emotional development and physical growth. Programs should be evaluated regularly to make sure they have implemented the practices that work.
  • Engaged families. Child care providers should serve as resources to the family, providing information on developmental milestones, linking families to resources in their community should they need them, and helping them implement positive experiences and home environments that will promote their child’s learning and development.

How do we get there?

Here in Vermont we’re working on many fronts to improve our early care and education system. Efforts to improve quality and access, strengthen and invest in the child care workforce and build stronger community networks are underway through initiatives including Vermont Birth to Three, STARS, the Vermont Community Preschool Collaborative, the Let’s Grow Kids campaign and the Race to the Top Grant work. We recently initiated community conversations around the state to jumpstart a dialogue about the importance of early childhood.

Still, there’s more to do. If you believe all Vermont children deserve a solid start in life, please get involved and join the discussion. Visit LetsGrowKids.org for more information and to sign the pledge.

The future is brighter for everyone, when our children our happy, healthy and well cared for.