By Chloe Learey, Executive Director. Published in the Brattleboro Reformer, November 26, 2021
Across the United States, headlines of urban, suburban, and rural news markets herald the “crisis in child care.” Programs are unable to run at full capacity because they cannot hire enough staff, and others are closing altogether. Families are left in the lurch. And, women have dropped out of the workforce at an alarming rate since the onset of the pandemic as the challenges of child care fall on them to navigate. Since women are the primary workforce in child care this is a double whammy to the sector.
The challenges of child care existed prior to the onset of the COVID pandemic. While there has been widespread recognition of the important role quality child care plays in economic development, investment in the sector has not followed. Sentiments from “parents should stay home with their kids” to “don’t have kids if you can’t afford them” are anachronistic and misplaced in the reality of today. Taking care of children and supporting their optimal development, whether at home or in a formal early education setting, is a significant contributor to economic prosperity and should be invested in accordingly. Child care allows people to participate in the workforce and gives our future workforce the foundation they need to be successful in school and beyond.
There are promising developments in state and federal legislation. Act 45 in Vermont represents a strong step forward in making child care more affordable for families and supporting early educators to obtain and pay for professional development. The Build Back Better Act being considered at the federal level includes several elements for expanding child care including decreasing the cost of tuition for families and creating free universal pre-kindergarten.
The success of these investments will depend on whether we have enough teachers and enough spaces to accommodate the demand. Considering that child care capacity is decreasing from an already inadequate supply, there is reason to be concerned that these investments will come too late. Between December 2015 and December 2020, Vermont lost 2.5 percent of reported child care capacity, a total of 821 spots (https://dcf.vermont.gov/sites/dcf/files/CDD/Reports/December_2020_CC_Programs_Report.pdf). During the same period, the state lost 390 regulated providers, the vast majority of which were registered Family Child Care Homes, small businesses that are a key piece to maintaining the health of the sector.
There is an immediate need to stabilize child care so that we do not lose more slots. The primary driver of losing capacity right now is the lack of staff. Classrooms are closing because there are not enough teachers. While we do not yet understand all the reasons for “The Great Resignation,” we do know that competition for employees is at an all-time high. Working with young children is rewarding and exhausting and involves more heath risk than usual in the time of COVID, when our youngest citizens cannot get vaccinated yet and most of whom cannot wear masks. Wages do not reflect the value, stress, or risk of the work, and it is hard to keep people in the field when they can make $3 to $5 more an hour at an easier, less risky job.
What can we do to keep people in the field and attract more to join us so that we have a child care sector left in which to invest? Essentially, we need to immediately make it more lucrative to be an early educator. One idea is to increase wages by offering retention and recruitment bonuses. While more money does not always lead to retention, in a field where the average wage is $13.27 and the work is exhausting and now risky, an increase is warranted. A second idea is to offer free child care to those working in child care programs. Finding mechanisms to give child care workers access to affordable health care would be a very welcome benefit since many programs cannot offer it to their teachers. Finally, a third idea would be to create a program to help pay down student loan debt, a sort of “loan forgiveness program.” All these ideas could be supported through COVID relief funds. Even though these are one-time dollars and not a way to make these initiatives sustainable, it will get us through the short-term crisis while the longer-term investments get cemented into legislation and budgets. If we don’t act now, there may not be a sector to invest in for the future. It is far easier to shore up what we have than to rebuild from the ground up. Our children, families, employees, and all other employers deserve it.
Chloe Learey is the executive director of Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development in Brattleboro and serves on the Building Bright Futures State Advisory Council.