Providers and parents looking to fix Vt. child care system

Child care is in the spotlight in the legislature with discussions surrounding millions of dollars for how to ease the financial burden on both providers and pa
Published: Jan. 25, 2023 at 6:24 AM EST
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STOWE, Vt. (WCAX) - Child care is in the spotlight in the Vermont Legislature with discussions surrounding millions of dollars on how to ease the financial burden for both providers and parents.

A 2020 DCF report showed that from April 2012 to December 2020, 1,389 regulated child care programs closed, and in that time, 910 opened.

At a time when child care investments are a top conversation in the state government from both parties, the Apple Tree Learning Center says things have changed over its 25 years of operation.

Four-year-olds frolic at Apple Tree Learning Center in Stowe, starting their morning in small groups. It’s home to 95 students with 28 staff members.

In 25 years of operation, owner Sonja Raymond and director Nicole Walker have noticed a change, saying there were fewer advocates and requirements.

“Finding high-quality child care providers and teachers is really, really challenging. Gone are the days when you can hire just anybody who is interested in working with children, they have to meet certain criteria. So that makes it really challenging and then the low wages Unfortunately, while we try to pay higher than average, it’s really complicated,” Walker said.

They said they’re proud of their staff, half of whom have bachelor’s degrees in early education, a quarter working toward it and several in licensing programs.

Statewide, Let’s Grow Kids said 2019 data shows the staffing turnover rate is at 33%. To meet current child care demand, Let’s Grow Kids says there are nearly 8,700 child care slots that need to be filled.

Staffing turnover could be attributed to factors like lower wages and benefits. That’s something Apple Tree said they’ve focused on and done well at combating, but it’s a balance.

“The wages are paid based on what parents can afford. And you have parents right at the edge all the time with the average family of four, with two kids with a certain they’re going to pay close to $30,000 to $32,000 a year here. That’s, by anybody’s standards, probably 30% to 50% of your income,” said Raymond.

It’s a dual-sided issue. Like many other child care centers, there are around 180 students on the waiting list at Apple Tree, a number they said is high.

The waitlist is familiar to many, including Helena Sullivan, whose grandson attends Apple Tree.

“Waiting list for a few months and they’re splitting their day care so they go here twice a week and they go to Mountain Village School twice a week because I don’t think they could get in for the full week,” said Sullivan

Sullivan says they’re happy with the care their grandson gets. But, it doesn’t come without a commute.

“There are challenges that they drive 35 minutes to drive to get here because there isn’t the same opportunity where they are,” said Sullivan

There are Statehouse conversations underway about how to invest in child care, but how to pay for care is still in question.

“Wish there was more help from the state for the school to thrive,” said Sullivan.

A report from the RAND Corporation calls for public investment of $179 million to $279 million a year, making child care free for those with the lowest income, and giving subsidies to families of four. A variety of added taxes would pay for it.

“We need to create a funding source of our own that is state and probably a private mix of some sort. I’d love to see be affordable for families,” said Raymond.

Alternatively, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott laid out a plan for child care investments of his own. He wants to set aside $120 million a year to expand access to, and affordability of child care.

Providers and parents alike will be watching.

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