In the past, the state government had considered unifying the child care and education fields. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

With the second-highest per capita homeless rate in the nation, the Legislature ended, as of July, current state funding for providing hotel/motel shelter for 2,800 homeless Vermont families, of which about 600 are children. To their credit, 23 legislators demurred.

Also in the final moments of this legislative session, the Legislature passed H.217, in which a combination of revenue resources will inject $130 million a year in new revenue into Vermont’s struggling child care system. With some 5,800 preschool children in Vermont, that’s $22,414 per child, an amount that will cover most, but not all, of the cost of their day care.

All well and good, but given the decision to send the homeless back to their tents?

A good friend and globally recognized thinker and strategist, Dr. Steve Shepard, teaches a reverse-engineering course internationally to government leaders and agencies on how to effect and afford major change.

The simple concept engages change-agents in a process of envisioning where they want to end up, not analyzing where they are in the present and becoming mired in inherent problems. Reverse-engineering frees people from the fear and insecurity of change and loss of status, and keeps them focused on a positive outcome. They then work backward from the ideal, analyzing the changes needed to get there, always with the endgame as the clear goal.

Were we to reverse-engineer public education, would we close our revered local community primary schools and initiate an additional revenue-generating tax to fund an evolving local infrastructure of child care facilities based on a desperate economic imperative?

Now that the Legislature has raised and will begin to spend the $130 million in the fiscal year that starts July 1 to get us partway there, wouldn’t it have been easier to go all the way with what we already have in the Vermont Department of Education, which manages one of the most substantial per capita educational revenue streams in the country?

Public education consumes 5.4% of all the income we earn, the third-highest share in the nation. In 2020, we spent $20,838 per public education pupil, a total of $1.43 billion funding voter-approved spending in all districts — this for 83,534 students. Surely, integrating another 5,800 (7%) preschool children into our shrinking public education system would be far more cost-effective. We could use the administrative infrastructure we already have, the budgets we already approve and the community facilities we’ve already built and paid for to expand our educational mission by a mere 7%.

We are clearly committed to our children’s education, so why are we reinventing the wheel to build a new “day care” economy?

I have never liked the idea of “child care” — is it baby-sitting, safe storage? —  and I don’t understand why we would continue to close our community schools, which are vital to our small communities, while funding and building out new “child care” infrastructure — a duplicative and expensive way to respond to a clear need for child care from birth on.

I understand that a major rationale was protecting the small home-based businesses that make up much of the day care infrastructure in our small communities. My own children were in one for a time in Jerusalem (Starksboro) and were well cared for.

A chance for lifelong learning

Apparently, this $130 million will be allocated across current private-sector day care facilities, in-community public school space offerings, a few employer-based facilities, and whatever new centers will open as a result of the new funding — a mix of for-profit, nonprofit, and community resources.

Since some initiatives are underway to integrate child care into the public education system, why did we not choose to build on this and reimagine public education as a lifelong learning system, supporting learners from six months into old age, all under the Vermont Department of Education, where it belongs?

Child care is now regulated by the Department for Children and Families in the Agency of Human Services, whose equally important but different mission is about the security and safety of our children rather than their education.

Until we really understand this period of a child’s life as being instrumental in determining who they will grow up to be, we miss the educational imperative that should inform how we institutionalize their care from birth to public kindergarten.

Early childhood experiences from birth to age 8 affect the development of the brain’s architecture, which provides the foundation for all future learning, behavior and health. This science is integral to the training of early educators. Will all three evolved sectors (community, for-profit and nonprofit) of child care providers have this depth of training and experience?

There are some good signs. 

The Community College of Vermont Northern Lights Program and Castleton University are currently training several hundred early educators preparing to enter the educational system as teaching professionals.

Now, imagine an educational system that began at six months after a paid family-bonding leave to allow for the critical bonding of a newborn with its parents. As of now, schooling is not mandatory in Vermont until age 6, even as public schools are required to offer kindergarten to children age 5. But for many parents, child care is mandatory, given that most parents work for a living. 

Are we not responsible to our children and families to meet that need with the best system possible?

Specialized early educators

In an education-based system, attendance would not be mandatory until age 5 but would be available from six months on to working parents as “public education.” In such a system, professional early educators with specialized pediatric knowledge and access to family-support services would replace “day-care workers.” 

Early educators would have the training to identify adverse childhood experiences and, if needed, enlist trauma-informed therapists to work with children and families to address and remediate problems that, if undetected and unaddressed, too often lead to special ed, criminal justice involvement, and in some cases incarceration later in life.

In Vermont, the total known cost for untreated adverse childhood experiences, special education, opioid addiction, mental health, and child-welfare family services is just over $1 billion per year. The hungry child living in the back seat of their mother’s car does not come to school with learning as his or her top priority.

The Senate chose to fund H.217 with less than half a percent increase in payroll taxes, of which employers will pay 75% and workers 25%, raising $80 million, which was augmented by a $50 million appropriation from the general fund, totaling $130 million.

Assuming a legislative override of Gov. Scott’s veto, the bill will take effect July 1, at the beginning of fiscal 2024, and will reimburse child care providers at 35% higher than the current rate, eliminate co-pays for families making from $45,000 to $52,000 for a family of four, and extend partial subsidies to all families at or below 575% of the federal poverty level — $172,000 for a family of four.

While I support the stated goal of affordable “early care and education” for every Vermont family, I can’t help but object to the expensive and incremental process we traveled to get partway there. I also rebel against the traditional legislative approach to problem-solving with a study-tweak-reinvent process that inevitably expands cost and administrative complexity.

And, is it really a Vermont thing to send homeless families camping?

Bill Schubart is a retired businessman and active fiction writer, and was a former chair of the Vermont Journalism Trust, the parent organization for VTDigger.