Vermont leads with new child care law, Act 76

By Chris Mays, Brattleboro Reformer. Photo by Let’s Grow Kids

BRATTLEBORO — A new law in Vermont is anticipated to expand access to child care and provide more stability in the field. 

Aly Richards, CEO of Let’s Grow Kids, said Act 76 ushers in a new era for child care and the bill enjoyed “unbelievable support across the political spectrum that we often do not see, especially for a bill of this magnitude that involves revenue.”

A payroll tax of 0.11 percent will bring in $125 million annually for supports.

“This puts Vermont as a leader in the nation for child care,” Richards said. “Change is already happening on the ground.”

Richards and her crew visited Brattleboro and Wilmington on Tuesday for the tail end of their Courage in Action Child Care Tour. Let’s Grow Kids runs “a legislative campaign to publicly fund a high-quality child care system that is affordable and accessible to all Vermont families so that, by 2025, every Vermont child has an equal opportunity to learn, thrive, and reach their full potential,” states information shared by the organization. 

Brattleboro-based Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development Executive Director Chloe Learey initiated the Windham County Child Care Counts Coalition in 2018 to specifically work on those issues. Beaver Brook Children’s School in Wilmington is being touted as a new leader in the field, providing high-quality care with more than 30 spots for children. Play

Local and state officials visited Beaver Brook Children’s School in Wilmington on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023, as part of the positive change happening on the ground for child care programs and communities spurred by Act 76.By Kristopher Radder, Brattleboro Reformer

Starting in January, child care programs will receive a 35 percent increase in reimbursements from the state. In July, an additional increase will be made for home-based programs. The first round of funds to help stabilize child care programs will be released in the summer. 

More families will be eligible for child care financial assistance in April. Even more will be in October. 

“Families have been figuring out how to make it work,” said Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Windham-7, chairwoman of the House Committee on Ways and Means. “Now, I think there could be some hope to it.”

Rep. Tristan Roberts, D-Windham-6, called child care “an important part of our education system that just needed to be put on a sustainable footing.” He’s already seen providers investing in new equipment and hiring new employees, and new centers opening as a result of Act 76.

Richards said she expects “systemic transformation” to start in January. At the same time, she acknowledged the need to accomplish more. 

“We aren’t done yet,” she said. The bill “shows this is within our grasp, that we can do this.” 

Kornheiser held jobs in the early childhood system before being elected as a legislator. 

“This is women’s work and this is poor women’s work,” she said. “So it is either something poor women are doing to get into the workforce or they’re suffering economically … to stay home and care for their kids. It’s an issue that very few politicians talk about.” 

Kornheiser said she’s starting to witness “real sea change.” One of her best memories in the process of getting the bill passed involved talking with business leaders enthused about the payroll tax, as they thought the bill would benefit them. 

Roberts said the new law will help provide affordable child care and a living wage to workers in the field. 

“I think this is just going to be a basic building block of supporting working parents, which we badly need to do,” he said. “I personally decided that early childhood education was important for my child at that age. Even with two incomes, we would not have been able to afford it without a state subsidy.” 

Child care providers are competing in a market where they can’t hire without having higher wages, Learey said. That has become more challenging since COVID-19. 

Federal American Rescue Act Plan funds were tapped to raise wages at the Winston Prouty center. Sustaining the bigger paychecks involved an act of faith that Act 76 would pass, Learey said. She acknowledged wages still need improvement to attract new staff members.

Learey said employees also need to like the work and adults, too, if they’re going to stay in the field. Mentorship and career development opportunities are needed, she added. 

About 7,450 more children will be eligible for the tuition help thanks to the law, according to an estimate by Let’s Grow Kids. Learey wondered if there will be enough slots to accommodate them. 

Before COVID-19, the Winston Prouty center had six classrooms. The center reopened with four and tried to bring back a fifth last fall but encountered staffing challenges. 

Learey emphasized the need to spark and foster passion in new employees. She said the tuition subsidies will free up some cash flow at the center currently used to provide scholarships. 

Her coalition helped reboot an early childhood program at the Windham Regional Career Center. About 12 or 14 students are moving through the program now, Learey said. 

“Some people are doing field placements and they love it,” she said. “They will graduate with some credits and be able to go right into the classroom.” 

Learey also highlighted the new child care training program for refugees organized by Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation and partners. Of the approximately nine participants, two are working at the Winston Prouty center. 

“The new bill has allowed our program to set a $20 per hour minimum wage, matching many of the larger employers in the Deerfield Valley and Southern Vermont,” said Julie Koehler, director of Beaver Brook Children’s School. “We also have more families who are benefiting from the Childcare Financial Assistance Program and seeing lower tuition copays because of Act 76.”