In a nation where patchwork child care infrastructure has been wrecked by 18 months of pandemic, the state of Vermont is on the verge of making universal child care a reality. In May 2021, after years of coalition-building, Vermont passed H.171, legislation to lay the blueprint for universal child care. What comes next is how to fund and deliver such a system, an expensive and complicated proposition to fund, with myriad ways to deliver care: at a school, a center, in someone’s home.
Proponents and advocates are watching closely, in hopes that this model can be replicated in other states, or extrapolated onto the national scene, as President Joe Biden pledges a historic investment in early childhood education.
A Long Game in Vermont
Change can be years, decades and even longer in the making. Vermont is no exception. For example, in 1982, real estate developer Rick Davis saw that poverty was affecting the livelihoods of families in Burlington, and wanted to take action. He spent decades investing in youth programs, including building a youth center, meeting with families, offering jobs on his work sites to kids who could be mentored and well cared for by his team. But he still felt that the cycle of poverty wasn’t fully broken, and began looking for more tangible ways to make a difference and change outcomes for kids in adverse situations.
The group combined relationship building with grassroots efforts and a public education campaign on the benefits of universal child care. Field staff worked in every Vermont county.
This led him to learn more about the brain science of children’s learning and the “return on investments” of diverse interventions. What he found surprised him. “The ages of birth to five,” said Davis, “are when quality care and strong relationships have the most significant impact on the rest of a child’s life.”
That’s when his mission shifted to getting more kids in quality child care programs. Davis became the founder of the Vermont Community Preschool Collaborative, since rebranded as Vermont Let’s Grow Kids, which is spearheading the effort of bringing quality, affordable child care to every child in the state of Vermont. The movement has swelled into a nearly 40,000-person coalition, six% of Vermont’s population.
Experts agree that investing in the first five years leads to better outcomes academically and socially for kids. Quality, accessible and affordable child care also allows parents, especially moms, to stay in the workforce longer, providing more stability to a family overall. But even with strong support in polls and from experts in the field, no state in the country has implemented such a program. Vermont, if successful, would be the first.
Before Universal Child Care, A Push for Universal Pre-K
Before the push for universal child care, Vermonters had a streak of support for early learning and care. Vermont was one of 10 states, including D.C., with a universal pre-K program, and while there is some debate as to what constitutes “universal,” only Vermont’s program, along with D.C. and Florida, allow any child to enroll, regardless of enrollment numbers, deadlines or funding.
Vermont’s initial universal preschool offering was a “voluntary law” from 1997. This means that a locality was required to set up the program and run it for two years, before becoming eligible for state funding in the third year.
In 2008, when Davis and his team first began conversations around universal child care, only about 20% of localities had universal preschool programs.
In 2013, after five years of bringing business leaders, philanthropists and nonprofits to the table to work with school boards to establish funding for those first two years, 80% of Vermont’s localities offered universal pre-K. This created the “tipping point” Davis said, for universal pre-K to be available statewide.
In 2014, the measure was signed into state law and Vermont became the first state in the country to provide 10 hours of preschool per week for every 3- and 4-year-old in the state, for 35 weeks a year.
After the state passed a universal pre-K program, Davis felt ready to tackle birth- to-five child care. This was when the Vermont Community Preschool Collaborative was rebranded as Let’s Grow Kids, a nonprofit with a specific 10-year mission to bring universal child care to the state. Formed in 2015, the group expects to sunset in 2025. “This creates a clear sense of urgency and purpose,” said Let’s Grow Kids’ CEO Aly Richards, whom Davis recruited from the governor’s office to head the group.
Thus began the effort to mobilize business leaders, political leaders, experts, educators and families around the idea of universal child care. The organization had a policy arm and a political arm, designed to bring a wide array of stakeholders to the table and build a case for universal child care.
The group combined relationship building with grassroots efforts and a public education campaign on the benefits of universal child care. Field staff worked in every Vermont county: tabling at county fairs, community education events on early childhood brain science, door-to-door canvassing, phone banking, text banking, and volunteer development through annual advocacy events and trainings. The public education effort used both grassroots organizing and multi-channel marketing, including radio and TV ads. The campaign’s effectiveness was tracked through polling, which steadily increased as Let’s Grow Kids’ efforts ramped up.
Business Entices Young Families to Thrive in Vermont
Vermont, like the other northern New England states Maine and New Hampshire, has a large retiring baby boomer population without enough children and working adults to replace them; that number is projected to continue dropping. “Over the next 10-15 years, we will have a huge wave of retirements and no workers in the pipeline to fill the jobs,” said State Senate Leader Becca Balint.
The year 2017 marked the first time that Vermont had as many seniors (over age 65) as children (under age 18). Just two decades earlier, children outnumbered seniors by more than two to one. Balint believes the “shrinking workforce” problem played a key role in attracting support from the business community for universal child care, which she described as “a bright shiny object” to attract and retain young families in Vermont and allow parents to enter and stay in the workforce.
More Women in the State House
Balint also credits changing demographics in the state house, notably the influx of more women who deeply understand the struggle to find child care, just as she had, in building support for the movement. Balint remembers her arrival to the state senate in 2014 as the mother of two young children when most of her colleagues were males, over age 60, “long since retired.”
The shrinking workforce played a key role in attracting support from the business community for universal child care, described by State Senate Leader Becca Balint as “a bright shiny object” to attract and retain young families in Vermont and allow parents to enter and stay in the workforce.
“They hadn’t been thinking about the issue of having two people in the workforce,” Balint said, whose wife also worked. “They would tell me it was strictly a personal issue, and say ‘someone should just be home with the kids.’”
Now, the general assembly is over 40% women for the first time in state history, including women as Speaker of the House, Lieutenant Governor, President Pro Tem of the Senate, the House Majority and Minority Leaders, and the Senate Majority Leaders.
Both Balint and Richards point to Covid as that final watershed moment that child care was a necessity that workers couldn’t do without. “We know that child care is an integral part in getting more people into the workforce,” said Balint. If Vermont wants a thriving business community, it needs to shift child care from a “personal issue” to a collective one.
Despite the groundswell of political will for the program, Vermont still faces a major hurdle in funding the universal child care program. H.171 puts in place two studies: the first on how to make the program accountable and efficient, and to decide which agency will regulate it and how. The second is a revenue study, designed to map out the costs and payments. Balint mentioned one idea for the dedicated funding stream via a payroll tax, shifting the burden of paying for child care to people working, exempting the retirees.
The goal, said Richards, is to present both the revenue and governance bills in 2023 to the legislature for a vote. That’s in keeping with Let’s Grow Kids’ own deadline of 2025 to sunset, and with the urgency and momentum the movement has built.
Richards knows they have their work cut out for them, and both she and Balint expressed optimism that the universal child care program will succeed.
“We have a no-popping-champagne rule,” Richards explains. “The hardest work is still ahead.”
Support for this reporting was provided by Better Life Lab at New America.