Research and regulations lead to a rocky situation for child care in southern Vermont

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BENNINGTON COUNTY — Without assistance from family or compensation from a job, the price of childcare is expensive for working parents at the additional cost of the education quality.

While parents face the challenge of finding affordable child care, home based and center-based programs are struggling with state regulations. Teachers are required to further their education in order to deliver quality care, but if the pay doesn't reflect that effort, then they'll likely leave a center to work elsewhere.

Seventy-nine percent of infants and toddlers likely to need care in Vermont do not have the access to high-quality programs, according to Let's Grow Kids Stalled at the Start report. In Bennington County, its 65 percent.

This is something Laurie Metcalfe speaks passionately about in her job at Sunrise Family Resource Center as a early care & education director. Cristina Maddocks, executive director of the Northshire Day School and Metcalfe were featured in an article published by Let's Grow Kids in August to localize the statewide problem.

"I'm so immersed in this that I take it for granted almost," Maddocks said. "The growth and development from birth to age 3 and to 5, it doesn't happen in any other part of your life. [There's] amazing potential to focus on the early years. [It's about] shifting the narrative and having everyone else besides us in the field recognize how important it is. Staff could be paid and keep costs down for families and continue to feel trusted with education."

She added that instead of spreading resources for substance abuse and incarceration, money can be used to invest in the education of little ones; being proactive versus reactive.

Metcalfe and Maddocks want people to realize that childcare centers aren't just for babysitting and that licensed educators are staffed to teach the infant in its early stages of life.

According to economist James Heckman and the Let's Grow Kids Stalled at the Start report, by investing in early childhood programs, there is the possibility of a 7 to 10 percent annual return with the advantage of reducing future costs including education, health care and corrections. Additionally, children who receive high-quality care are less likely to need special education, be held back a grade and are less likely to commit a violent crime.

Vermont childcare centers are rated on a five star scale with four and five considered high-quality. More than 70 percent of centers in the state participate in the rating program STARS (Step Ahead Recognition System).

Happy Days Playschool in Arlington is a five star center along with the Northshire Day School and child care program at Sunrise. Happy Days director Carol Barbieri said that the higher the stars, the higher the quality is and the more assistance parents will get in subsidies through the state's Child Care Financial Assistance Program.

"There's lots of things about a quality program," Barbieri said. "There's different pots of money. One for parents working or going to school. It's not a program to help children to get into preschool. It started so parents could go to work or get a degree, it still remains that way. It keeps their lives calm and helps their child with programs because they can't care for them. [The money] comes directly to the center."

Another set of money is available for caregivers who have a medical reason for not being able to take care of a child. For example, if parents are awarded a subsidy of $95 and child care costs $100, they only have to pay $5. Some subsidies cover the entire cost, others cover less. It depends on various requirements, Barbieri said.

For a family of three or less that has a gross monthly income of $1,649, the state will pay 100 percent of the child care cost. For a family of six or more that makes a gross monthly income of $5,328, the state can cover 10 percent of the child care costs.

Payment rates are based on the child's age, type of provider and number of authorized hours the child is in care. If the program can pay more than the provider's child care cost, the leftover funds stay with the provider, according to the program description.

"We get more money back because we're five star," she added. "That's the quality piece. There's lots of things happening, sometimes it isn't enough. It solves part of the problem but [regulations] don't usually solve problems completely."

Barbieri wishes subsidy requirements would change because of how many people either make $100 more or less than the set amount.

"I feel bad for the families that are borderline," she said. "That's what I would like to see, criteria for getting subsidy would change so more people are eligible."

In the spring, $1 million was approved by the legislature to fund the state's Child Care Financial Assistance Program. However, there's still a $9.1 million gap in the program between tuition assistance and the current child care market rates.

She said some parents drop out of the subsidy programs because if they attain a better job, they can't receive the assistance any more. This is associated with the potential future changes in minimum wage. As it changes, she hopes the subsidy requirements change. It is currently $9.60.

The same goes for what she pays her teachers. At most, they make $12 to $13 per hour and those without certifications start at $10. Last year two of her staff left to work in retail.

Between 28 and 40 percent of two working parents' income is spent on child care and equals out to more than $19,000 per year, according to Let's Grow Kids. At the same time, child care educators earn less than $25,000 per year, typically without benefits.

"Things were different when my child was in childcare," Metcalfe said. "Then, people could afford, for whatever reason, to expand programs that we now are not really able to expand because we can barely retain the teachers that we have and the current programs that we have to be able to make it work. We're doing a lot more with less."

Between now and 2022, the Vermont Department of Labor predicts 70 percent of child care positions will be open due to high turnover rates, making it in the top 10 occupations with the highest number of openings on average, per year, according to Let's Grow Kids. High turnover is due to the lack of professional opportunities and low pay.

Metcalfe said child care workers are required to get their bachelor's degree or some form of college education. If she can't pay them more for better quality, they sometimes seek out better jobs. In her eyes, experience in the field is much more valuable than a certificate.

Additionally, educators have their own families and need to find time to continue in school while being a parent and an employee at a child care center.

"The compensation is not equal," Metcalfe said. "How are we going to retain people in private childcare and nonprofit? Especially serving the children that need the early childhood experiences the most. We're a nonprofit agency. If our early education program wasn't housed at Sunrise, we'd be operating in a deficit. We don't even bring money into the agency, for the most part."

This need stems from years of brain science research and regulation updates, Matt Levin executive director of the Vermont Childhood Alliance said. Instead of incremental changes in regulations, there's been a jump that most people agree with, it just makes it harder for some people, he said.

There's also a better understanding of a child's brain development at an early age. If "you do the right thing" from birth to age 5, there will be a better outcome.

"These are very important issues and pressing concerns for the childhood community and entire community as a whole," Levin said. "Having high quality childcare is important for the economy and makes for a better business climate for the short term and long term; Customers, family and children and making sure folks have something affordable and people doing the work. You need to have proper training and enough training in a timely way and be paid enough so they can do a good job and feel that it's a job they want to stay in. Our most important asset is our children."

Contact Makayla-Courtney McGeeney at 802-490-6471.


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