Jennifer Garner spotlights early childhood education during Vermont visit

BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) Hollywood came to Vermont Thursday as actress Jennifer Garner lent her star power to the issue of early childhood education.

Garner was at Robin's Nest in Burlington to see one example of Vermont's early childhood education programs. She's an advocate with Save the Children Action Network, which lobbies for opportunities for children.

"Vermont is a real leader. That's why I'm here. I'm here to celebrate something happening that's right -- which is moms going back to work, because lord knows we need it. It's kids being at a high-quality early childhood education center, to hit the ground running when they start kindergarten," Garner said. "But if you've never been in this environment, then you can see, your brain hasn't grown the way that it has a shot to grow. And if it doesn't, the chance is gone."

Garner, Governor Phil Scott, and legislative leaders helped out reading to children for storytime. While not a page-turner, the event was a rallying cry for more investments in early childhood education. It's an issue Gov. Scott and party leaders have found common ground on.

"The impact it has on the families who send their kids here cannot be understated," said Senate President Tim Ashe, D-Chittenden County,

The pitch to taxpayers is that early childhood education investments would not just prepare students better for school, but would also help bring young people to Vermont and grow the state's economy.

"The data shows positive return on investment in one of the most challenging areas -- workforce expansion," Gov. Scott said. "As we work to attract young families to Vermont, our commitment to early childhood education could be a draw for young families, and quite possibly the best economic development tool we have in our toolbox."

Legislative leaders say there is still work to complete in three areas -- getting more people eligible for financial help, building quality care, and creating a business model that makes it possible for child care locations to stay open.

They say the last item on the list is key, because it's hard to find child care. According to a in November report to the Joint Fiscal Office, in 2018 there were 1,693 fewer spots for children statewide than there were in 2015. While centers added some 161 openings, spots at in-home providers were down by 1,854.

The Child Development Division reported a net gain of 783 spots over the past year, but most of those were among preschool, which gained 298 spots, and school-age kids, which picked up 584. Openings for infants were down 29, and toddlers dropped 70 spots.

Still, Vt. Child Development Division Deputy Commissioner Reeva Murphy says she's hopeful the downward trend is leveling off. "We're actually beginning to see a slowing of the decrease in capacity and we believe we're starting to turn the curve a little bit. We've seen gains in a few areas, so we're optimistic." she said.

And then comes the question of cost. The Governor pitched $7 million of sales and use tax revenues in his budget address to go towards child care assistance programs. Lawmakers are also working to figure out how to pay for programs they all agree they want.

"It's not easy finding big chunks of money in a tight budget with a lot of competing needs," House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero.

They say this will be an ongoing conversation as the session progresses.

All involved said they have common ground on expanding access to high-quality child care. The questions of how to do it -- and how much money the state will spend on it -- are still being worked out in the legislature.

Garner also had a public event Thursday afternoon at the Roxy in Burlington on the importance of high-quality child care.

Click here for the Joint Fiscal Office Child Care Capacity Report.