Editor’s note: This commentary is by Aly Richards, CEO of the Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children. Founded in 2000, the Permanent Fund is a philanthropic organization that partners with other early childhood organizations to promote access to high quality, affordable early care and learning in Vermont.Research tells us that the most important component of high-quality early care and education is the quality and consistency of the caregiver or teacher. Unfortunately, the early childhood field does not offer the wages or professional support necessary to effectively attract and retain the very best early educators.
One factor contributing to these limitations is the fact that many early care and education professions are classified by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as service professions, rather than education professions. This matters because data collected by the bureau is used by individuals, businesses, community organizations, state and federal agencies, and policymakers to make important decisions about workforce development, including the compensation levels necessary to recruit and retain workers within a given industry.
That’s why the Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children and our initiatives, Let’s Grow Kids and Vermont Birth to Five, are calling on the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to reconsider its recent rejection of a proposal that would have reclassified early childhood care and education professionals as education occupations, like elementary school professionals.
The critical role of early childhood professionals
Early childhood professionals are educators. Their understanding of early learning and development allows them to provide young children with activities that promote healthy cognitive, social and emotional development in safe and nurturing environments, which lays the foundation for success in school, relationships and life. But as long as early childhood care and education professions are listed as service industry occupations, it will be difficult to compensate them for skills and knowledge that more closely aligns with their elementary education counterparts than with employees in the service industry.
Vermont’s early childhood care and education providers play a critical role in our state’s education and child development system. This is recognized in the recent development of Vermont’s new child care licensing regulations. The state established high education and professional development criteria for its early childhood care and education workforce. This is entirely appropriate because in Vermont, as in the rest of the country, child care workers, preschool teachers, teacher assistants and early childhood program administrators are helping to build the brains of children and prepare them for kindergarten and beyond.
The people who spend their days providing Vermont’s youngest children with safe, nurturing learning experiences are struggling to cover their basic expenses and to support their own families.
Even though early childhood professionals have educational, professional development and training requirements similar to those of their counterparts in public schools, Vermont child care workers earn an average annual salary of less than $25,000, often without benefits. Think about that. The people who spend their days providing Vermont’s youngest children with safe, nurturing learning experiences are struggling to cover their basic expenses and to support their own families. This is unacceptable.
Vermont’s early childhood workforce is “stalled”
A state-by-state review of workforce policies and practices in the early childhood field, called the “Early Childhood Workforce Index 2016,” rated Vermont as “stalled out” when it comes to compensation strategies. The review was done by researchers at the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley. Researchers found that those working in the early care and education field are among the lowest-paid employees in the nation. The report calls for a transformation of early childhood jobs and early childhood policies and infrastructure. Absent this change, the report warns, “We will continue to witness educators leaving the field in search of employment that offers a livable wage, rewards their educational attainment, and provides the respect that is their due. And the next generation of young women and men will continue to eschew jobs teaching our youngest children.”
Vermont is losing dedicated and passionate early childhood professionals at an alarming rate. From May 2010 to May 2016, the number of regulated child care programs in Vermont decreased by 12.5 percent. The Vermont Department of Labor has projected that between 2012 and 2022, almost 70 percent of child care worker positions that become available in Vermont will be due to turnover, placing child care in the top 10 occupations in the state with the highest number of openings, on average, per year.
Vermont’s child care challenge
Vermont has a child care challenge. While more than 70 percent of children under age 6 have all available parents in the workforce, a recent report by Let’s Grow Kids found that almost half of Vermont infants and toddlers likely to need care don’t have access to any regulated child care programs and almost 80 percent don’t have access to high-quality programs.
High-quality child care is of utmost importance in preparing our future workforce, and high-quality care depends on highly-qualified professionals. In order to achieve the recognition early childhood professionals need, we must acknowledge their important roles.
Our state can lead the nation
The Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children has a mission to ensure every Vermont child has access to high-quality and affordable early care and education by 2025. In order to achieve this goal, we need to support our early childhood workforce. We also need to make high-quality care more affordable to parents and providers.
Vermont’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Financing High Quality, Affordable Child Care — which includes business representatives, policymakers, parents and child care providers — will issue a report in late November that will recommend financing strategies to support high-quality, affordable child care in Vermont. It will be up to Vermont’s next governor and legislative body to act on the commission’s recommendations and to implement policies aimed at solving Vermont’s child care challenge.
The Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children believes our state can lead the nation on this critical issue. I encourage Vermonters to join our efforts to make high-quality, affordable child care a reality for every Vermont child who needs it. Join the campaign at www.letsgrowkids.org to get involved.