The Deeper Dig: To go big, or go bigger, on child care

Monique Braman helps Elliot Hall, 2, put on snowboots Jan. 24, 2023 at the Orange County Parent Child Center in Tunbridge. Photo by Riley Robinson/VTDigger

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TUNBRIDGE — Despite Vermont parents’ overwhelming demand for spots in child care and preschools, the supply remains limited. Parents all over the state sit on waitlists for months or even years. If they do score a spot, tuition likely could cost them more than if they sent their toddler to an in-state college for the workday. 

And yet, despite the tight market for early childhood services, the educators still usually make less than $20 an hour, and often don’t receive benefits such as health insurance. 

Something in this economic system isn’t working for most Vermont families. 

Child care is also shaping up to be one of the most significant policy issues state lawmakers tackle this legislative session. Gov. Phil Scott already has released a $50 million proposal to increase to state subsidies. Legislators are expected to release a child care funding bill in the coming days. 

This episode, we go to the Orange County Parent Child Center in Tunbridge, where parents and educators discuss how they’re making it work. VTDigger politics reporter Lola Duffort explains how state funding for child care could change this year. 

Below is a partial transcript, edited for length and clarity.

Riley Robinson: It’s Tuesday morning dropoff at the Orange County Parent Child Center in Tunbridge. 

Yesterday was a snow day, but today everyone is going back to work and school, so parents drip through the front door, toddlers in one hand, tiny backpacks in the other. 

This is the only pre-K in Tunbridge and Chelsea. 

They’re accredited for 59 children in their early childhood ed programs. But right now, they have fewer than 40 kids enrolled. They couldn’t offer a class for the very youngest children — the infants — because they couldn’t staff it. They couldn’t hire a teacher. 

Their waitlist, for parents who want to enroll their kid, is now about two years long. 

Eliza Hale: I have two kids in school. I have a four-and-a-half-year-old in the bears room downstairs. And a two-year-old. I love this place. It's amazing. I would do anything to make it operate, like to make them not have to be struggling, so that it makes us struggle. 

Riley Robinson: This is Eliza Hale. 

Eliza Hale: I really feel for everybody. I feel for all my fellow parents. I feel for all the teachers. I feel for the managers and management, because we're all getting the squeeze, whether it's from our employers as parents, or them from us as parents, or the teachers from needing to be here. But everybody's just working too hard all the time. 

Riley Robinson: There are more than 21,000 children in Vermont who are under kindergarten age and have parents who work outside their home, who need some kind of reliable child care. 21,000. But statewide, there are fewer than 13,000 spots for full-time, year-round child care for kids under 5.

This is according to Let’s Grow Kids, the advocacy group that’s pushing for public investment in child care. 

State data also found that between 2015 and 2018, the number of openings in home-based child care shrunk by more than 25 percent

Parents who are able to get their kids enrolled are often paying well more than a thousand dollars a month. Some say it's more than their mortgage, and it's often more expensive than in-state college tuition.  

But still, with all this demand for early childhood programs, wages in the field still hover around $15 to $20 an hour, even for teachers with college degrees. They often don’t get benefits like health insurance.

There is widespread agreement among early childhood educators, parents and lawmakers that something in this economic system isn’t working. And many advocates are hopeful that this year, Vermont will make big changes to the child care system, and how it's funded. 

Of course, these families in Tunbridge, doing this particular morning rush, were the lucky ones that found open slots. 

Riley Robinson: What was it like trying to find child care? 

Kayla Thibault: Well, I started looking for child care when I was eight weeks pregnant. 

Riley Robinson: This is Kayla Thibault, from Tunbridge. When she started applying for child care early in her pregnancy, she got on the waitlist for a half dozen places. But then her first child was born, and nothing. She got through the first few months of her maternity leave, and still nothing. She was starting to get really worried. And then just a couple weeks before she had to go back to work, a spot opened up here. 

Riley Robinson: How is the cost of child care?

Kayla Thibault: It's incredibly expensive. We don't receive any subsidies. And so we have spent a fair amount of money, just putting our kids through child care.

We have spent about $12,000 for the last couple of years. 

Riley Robinson: … A year?  

Kayla Thibault: A year. On child care.

Riley Robinson: How does that impact other parts of your life?

Kayla Thibault: I mean, we’re just plugging along. I mean, we're a teacher and a social worker. I work part time. So that's not even full time. That's two part-time kiddos coming here.

Riley Robinson: Nathaniel Stratton was here dropping off his three-year old son. They were on the waitlist for about six months before a spot opened up.

Nathaniel Stratton: So I started my business and I started school at the same time, at VTC. So having him in child care has enabled me to do it. Otherwise, I'd still be a stay-at-home dad probably. 

Riley Robinson: Under a Vermont law passed in 2014, kids who are three to five years old qualify for 10 hours a week of state-funded pre-K. Nathaniel said that subsidy helps a lot.

Nathaniel Stratton: It's worth it, you know, having a kid in a good place where you know that they're taken care of, where they're getting a really good educational foundation. That's really important. So I just — no matter what the cost is, it would be worth it. It'd be nice if it were more of a public institution, I think. 

Riley Robinson: I also wanted to talk to the educators. This is Hannah Nadeau. 

Hannah Nadeau: I'm Hannah. I'm the early childhood program director, and I've been here almost four years.

Riley Robinson: Hannah oversees all the early childhood programs at the Orange County Parent Child Center, so the staff, the curriculums, making sure they’re following all the different state regulations. She’s worked in early childhood education in the Upper Valley since 2004. 

Hannah Nadeau: Throughout my career, definitely it started with minimum wage. This is the first center I've worked in where we have a livable wage.

I mean, there's been other centers I've worked at where it's like $13, and you have a degree, and they expect you to be a lead teacher and develop your curriculum that aligns with state standards. And so I think we are fortunate here, that we do have a leadership that supports that.

Hannah Nadeau, the director of early childhood education at Orange County Parent Child Center, helps a child put on snowboots Jan. 24, 2023 in Tunbridge. Photo by Riley Robinson/VTDigger

Riley Robinson: Early childhood education often doesn’t give teachers benefits like health insurance. Hannah explained to me that’s one reason the profession lose qualified staff to the public schools.  

Hannah Nadeau:I think something needs to change with child care. We have a country-wide expectation of child care employees, helping them realize that it can be a profession. This is a field where we are required to have higher education. There's also a larger cultural shift that needs to happen, and adults need to realize this is more than babysitting. Your teachers are educated. They have to have professional development every year. And, you know, honestly, people in early education are paid less than any other field of education.

It’s always blown my mind when you think about how much brain development happens in the first five years of life. And those educators are paid the least, compared to, like, college professors, where it's very, very fine tuning, in terms of brain development. 

Riley Robinson: The challenges around staffing and pay at this center, and the costs for this group of parents, are pretty typical all over the state. 

Michelle Downing, Waterbury: It took us about four months to find a place. That's in Colchester, so we drive from Waterbury to Colchester every day, twice a day, for pickup and drop off.

We put, I think it's 120 miles on our car a day doing this. So I think a rough estimate is 600 miles a week on our car. But also, we go back to: We're so grateful to have child care, when we talk to so many other parents who have either had to leave the workforce or have to pay for nannies, and it's impossible to make that work for us.

Ironically, we live right across the street from a daycare. And they have — from my understanding — they have a waitlist of 60 families. 

Alicia Roderigue, Burlington: month one passed, month two passed, and month three passed. And unfortunately, I wasn't able to find any sort of placement. And during that time, that's when I tried to patch together a care system within my household. So you know, I decided that again, officially, I was going to go back to work on a part-time basis. 

My husband changed around his schedule as well, so that he would have Mondays and Tuesdays off. And then I enlisted my grandmother to travel about an hour and a half, an hour and 45 minutes, once a week, to hang out with baby in our household. Just after that application process had been extended for quite some time, I really had to think how can I patch together this system with the resources that I do have within my household?

Erin Cusson, Fairfax: It's like, more than our mortgage, you know, was like sending them to daycare. And, you know, we're just at the point in the income bracket where it's like, we don't qualify for anything. 

Jane MacLean, Charlotte: The waitlists are much longer. And centers are constantly closing, because they don't have the staffing that they need, or they can’t comply with regulations or any number of things. 

And so it's just — it's so broken, it's so broken. 

Riley Robinson: People working on the political side of this also generally agree that the system needs fixing. Both the governor and legislative leaders have said it's a priority this year to expand access to child care and make the economics work for educators. But according to my colleague Lola Duffort, who covers state politics, they have vastly different ideas on how much the state should spend. 

Riley Robinson: So child care is looking like it's going to be, possibly, the biggest political issue on the agenda for the Legislature this year. Does that sound about right?

Lola Duffort: It almost certainly will be contentious, just because of the stated positions of different parties, and the dynamic between the governor and the Legislature. But I think I can say, fairly confidently, in terms of money, this is going to be the biggest debate. This is the biggest chunk of change that we're talking about. And most importantly, what we're not talking about is not one-time funding. We are talking about ongoing commitment. 

Riley Robinson: What are some of the ideas about what to do about this? What are the options?

Lola Duffort: The options that are on the table right now are, invest more heavily in it, or invest exponentially more in it. 

We have a Republican governor who's proposed spending another $50 million on child care subsidies, to expand subsidies to a greater number of people. Which would, according to his administration's estimates, triple the state's current investment in child care subsidies. 

That's basically what the administration believes that they can do without raising any taxes, right? Vermont is expecting that even though we're gonna see a drop off in revenue after this kind of weird post-pandemic boom time, we're still going to have a higher baseline, right. So there's going to be more money. And the Scott administration essentially wants to spend the biggest chunk of that new baseline and put it toward child care. 

Riley Robinson: What are some lawmakers proposing that we do about this? 

Lola Duffort: We don't know exactly what lawmakers are going to propose yet, because they have not unveiled their bill. I can tell you what advocates want. Advocates want $250 million, essentially. 

Riley Robinson: Remind me again what the governor’s amount would be. 

Lola Duffort: 50. 

Riley Robinson: Oh wow. So orders of magnitude. 

Lola Duffort: Orders of magnitude. And again, like to get a sense of the orders of magnitude, what the governor has proposed is already about three times as much as the state currently does. So do like three times five, and that gets you that gives you a sense of like, what the state's current effort is, and what advocates are ultimately pushing for. Advocates want $279 million.

And I think that that sounds incredible. And like, Oh my God, how could it cost that much? But just kind of consider, think about how much money we spend on K-12 education in Vermont. Right. It is approaching $2 billion a year, which means for every grade, we're spending like several hundred million.

And I think plenty of people complain about the cost of public education, but in general, we have a sense that this is just kind of what it costs. And like, maybe we're spending a little too much, we’re spending a little too little, depending on where you are. But like, that's what educating a child costs, -ish. And fundamentally, we are talking about doing that, again, for child care, right. Taking this service, that is actually more labor intensive than education. 

You have a lot fewer kids in an early ed classroom than you do in an elementary school classroom. You need more adults for every kid.

Lola Duffort: The RAND report found that it would cost the state an additional $179 million to $279 million to make child care, quote unquote, affordable — that's affordable with an asterisk — and to make it so that child care workers are more fairly compensated. 

Affordable is defined as it would cost less than 10% of a household’s income.

Anyway, so the RAND report was commissioned to kind of put a price tag on all this, to be like, how much would it cost to actually meet that goal? 

These analysts came up with this report and said, depending on a range of options, basically, depending how generous, and how many people you want to extend these benefits to, you're looking at, minimum, $179 million, if you are not going to expand subsidies to more people, but you're going to substantially beef up the subsidies that people currently receive. 

Riley Robinson: OK. And what would the 279 get? What would $279 million get the state? 

Lola Duffort: That would get you equally generous benefits extended to people who make up to five times the federal poverty level. 

Riley Robinson: They also put in some details about how the state could pay for this, right?

Lola Duffort: The most likely tax that is bandied around is a payroll tax. And basically they're saying a 1% payroll tax would raise about $200 million. You could also go for a two percentage point increase in the sales tax, a new limited services tax of 10%. So you're basically looking at services, taxes, sales taxes, or like a payroll tax. 

I think that if lawmakers ultimately opt for one of the more expensive options, I think it's likely that we'll see them reach for a couple of different taxes, to sort of mix and match. So that there isn't like one big sticker shock. 

Riley Robinson: So obviously, Democrats have a supermajority in the Legislature. Democratic leadership, House and Senate. Do Democrats generally seem united on this issue? 

Lola Duffort: Yes and no. I think there is a very widespread consensus that something big on child care needs to happen this year. I think what big is gonna be defined as… The Democratic Party is a very big tent. And I think that's probably what they're negotiating right now. 

Riley Robinson: The thing that came up over and over again when I was talking to people is that taking care of kids, and educating kids, is hard work. 

In the first classroom in Tunbridge, the teachers are changing diapers and singing to the kids.

In the next classroom, they’re finishing up breakfast. There’s a stack of dirty oatmeal bowls to be washed. There’s a load of laundry running. On one side of the room, a teacher is reading aloud to toddlers who listen entranced, mouths open. A few feet away, another group is working on puzzles. 

Monique Braman: We like to staff three teachers per classroom. Although regulations, we could just do two, but it is demanding work and the quality of care that we want to provide. 

Riley Robinson: This is Monique Braman. She’s the assistant director of children’s integrated services. 

Monique Braman: We provide early education and we really strive on that.

If a baby came in at six weeks of age, I would consider it early education. With the activities, the curriculum planning, the just all of the education that goes around goes along with it, the care that they're receiving.

Monique Braman, left, and Hannah Nadeau outside the Orange County Parent Child Center in Tunbridge. Photo by Riley Robinson/VTDigger

Riley Robinson: Monique and Hannah are administrators, but they float among classrooms to help the teachers, like a lot of K-12 schools are doing right now. They clean up blue paint from tables and from toddlers’ hands and noses. Then they have to get a room full of 2-year-olds into full-body snowsuits to go outside. 

I wanted to know what keeps them doing this work. 

I asked Hannah what drove her to do this work. Had she ever had doubts about staying in the field? 

Hannah Nadeau: Oh, I have. I left the field for several years.

Yeah, I think I honestly got burned out. The first center I worked at. And I, I took a shift. Left the field for almost six years.

And then yeah, I then returned when I realized how important our work is. Because without really high-quality experiences and early education, it just sets people up for a really hard time later down the road if they don't have those quality experiences. 

Riley Robinson: This policy debate, over how to fix the economics of child care, will likely go for months, over the course of the legislative session. 

And as this stretches on, Monique and Hannah will keep doing what they're doing. And there are others like them: Lots of early childhood educators treat this as a calling. They're not in it for the money. But the data suggests it's not sustainable for the child care system to keep running on passion. 

Now, how far the state is willing to go on this? That is still the big open question.

If you want to keep tabs on Vermont's education news, sign up here to get a weekly email with all of VTDigger's reporting on higher education, early childhood programs and K-12 education policy.


Riley Robinson

About Riley

Riley Robinson is a general assignment and multimedia reporter, covering stories across the state in writing, photos and video. She is a graduate of Northeastern University's School of Journalism and first joined the Digger newsroom as a Dow Jones News Fund intern.


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