Education or Childcare?



In the final moments of this legislative session, the legislature passed H.217, in which a combination of revenue resources will inject $130M a year into Vermont’s struggling childcare system.

The Senate’s choice for funding prevailed with less than half a percent increase in payroll taxes, of which employers will pay 75% and workers 25%, raising $80M which will then be augmented by a $50M appropriation from the General Fund.

Assuming a Scott veto and legislative override, the bill will take effect at the beginning of 2024 and will reimburse childcare providers at 35% higher than the current rate, eliminate co-pays for families making from $45,000-$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.

All well and good, but I struggle with the traditional legislative approach to problem solving with a study-tweak-reinvent process that inevitably expands cost and administrative complexity.

And personally, I dislike the idea of “childcare”  ̶   baby-sitting, safe storage?

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. Do the three evolved categories of childcare providers have this depth of training and experience?

Apparently, this $130M will be allocated across current private-sector daycare facilities, in-community public school offerings, a few business-based facilities, and new centers which will open as a result of the new funding  ̶  a mix of for-profit, nonprofit, and community resources.

I don’t understand closing community schools while funding and building new “childcare” infrastructure – a duplicative, and expensive way to respond to a clear need for childcare from birth on.

Initiatives are underway to integrate childcare into the public education system. Why not build on this and reimagine public education as a life-long learning system supporting learners from six-month into old age, all under the Vermont Department of Education (VDOE) where they belong. Childcare is now regulated by the Department for Children and Families (DCF) in the Agency of Human Services(AHS) whose equally important, but different mission is about the security and safety of our children rather than their education.

Imagine if public education began at six-months after a paid family bonding leave to allow for the critical bonding of a newborn with its parents. Schooling is not currently mandatory in Vermont until age six, even as public schools are required to offer kindergarten to children aged 5.

In an education-based system, attendance would not be mandatory until age five 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 family-support services would replace “day-care workers.” Early educators are also trained to identify early adverse childhood experiences (ACES) and, if needed, enlist trauma-informed therapists to work with children and families to address and remediate problems that, if undetected and unaddressed, accelerate into special ed, criminal justice involvement, and often corrections in later life.

The total cost of known Vermont costs for untreated ACEs, computed from special education, opioid addiction, mental health treatment and child welfare family services costs is just over $1B. 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.

While I support the stated goal of affordable “early care and education” (ECE) for every Vermont family, I object to the expensive and incremental process we travel to get part-way there. Now that the legislature has raised and will begin to spend the $130M next year to get us part way there, wouldn’t it have been easier to go all the way with what we already have in the Vermont Department of Education (VDOE) which manages one of the most substantial per capita educational revenue streams in the country?

In 2020, we spent $20,838 per public education pupil, a total of $1.43B funding voter-approved spending in all districts  ̶  this for 83,534 students. There are another 5800 preschool children that would need to be integrated into an expanded public education system. Could we not 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 only 7%?

Vermont spends nearly $2500 per capita on K-12 education, fifth highest in the nation and 35% above the national average. And education consumes 5.4% of all the income we earn, the third highest share in the nation.

We are clearly committed to our children learning so why did we reinvent the wheel to build a new “daycare” economy?

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 privilege, and keeps them focused on a positive outcome. They then work backwards from the ideal, analyzing the changes needed to get there, always with the end game as a 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 evolved local infrastructure of childcare facilities based on a desperate economic imperative?

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