Chris Nelson is the kind of person all families would love to have caring for their children. An experienced and enthusiastic early childhood educator, Nelson runs Mountain View Child Care in North Troy. The 10 children enrolled there spend weekdays on her 100-acre property.
Their curiosity drives the curriculum. A conversation over the correct color of a cow once launched a yearlong focus on farm animals. The kids’ fear of bees inspired a beekeeping project; Nelson got a hive and some beekeeping suits to show them how honey is made.
“You can connect anything with their ideas,” she says. “You can do counting with that; you can teach the alphabet with that.” Even after a long day of caring for infants, toddlers and preschoolers, Nelson still gets excited describing her role as an early childhood educator.
She gets just as worked up thinking about families she can’t serve. Nelson has been in business for 26 years — long enough to get calls from parents she knew as children. She got one recently that upset her.
A woman called seeking a spot for her child. “She said, ‘I just have such fond memories of being there,’” Nelson recalls.
Nelson had to turn the woman down; she hated to do it, but Mountain View Child Care is full. “She said, ‘But if I can’t find a spot for my child, I can’t have a job.’”
It’s not the first time Nelson has heard this dilemma — child care options in the Northeast Kingdom are scarce, and several programs have closed in the last year because of COVID-19 — and it really bothers her.
“They want to work. They have the job available, and they can’t take it because they can’t find care for their child,” Nelson says. “That’s sad.”
Families all across the state are having similar conversations. Even before the pandemic, three out of five of Vermont’s youngest children didn’t have access to the child care they needed.
Nelson’s story illustrates how this crisis affects us all: It stresses parents and caregivers, hollows out the workforce, and shutters small businesses — including child care providers who can’t earn enough to pay their bills without raising rates on overwhelmed parents.
The good news? A growing chorus of Vermont parents, educators, employers and community leaders is speaking up to say child care is essential and the time for investment is now.
Nonprofit Let’s Grow Kids is leading the charge. According to CEO Aly Richards: “The next step in the movement for high-quality, affordable child care for all Vermont families starts right now.” In January, with enthusiastic and vocal support from across the state, Let’s Grow Kids launched a three-year policy agenda designed to transform child care for children from birth to age 5. “Our policy agenda lays out how Vermont can create an equitable child care system that is affordable, high-quality, accessible, accountable and sustainable — a system that will help us build a better Vermont for today’s children, families and businesses, and for the generations to come.”
People’s United Bank president Michael Seaver is a recent champion. He’d like to see Vermont commit to becoming a leader in early childhood education, with every child in the state having access to a highly skilled early childhood educator, such as Nelson.
The science is clear, Seaver points out: The first five years of life are critical for brain development, laying a foundation for success later in life.
Getting kids the care they need — and ensuring that all young Vermonters have access to it — is the right thing to do and makes economic sense, Seaver says: “It’s just a smart investment to make.”
To explain why, we spoke with five Vermont residents with different perspectives on the child care system.
‘Even before the pandemic, everybody was teetering.’
— Chris Nelson
The families who send their children to Mountain View Child Care drive upwards of 35 minutes to get there, coming from Coventry, Derby Line and East Charleston.
Chris Nelson’s reputation has something to do with it — Mountain View is a high-quality, 5-star program, according to Vermont’s quality rating and improvement system — but geography is also a factor. Like Nelson, most of the child care providers in the NEK work from their homes. That puts hard limits on the supply of available slots. Home-based providers can accept a maximum of 10 children at a time; only two of them can be infants.
“If everybody’s full on babies, you’ve got a long wait,” Nelson says of parents with infants.
That’s why she no longer keeps a wait list. “I’d have to tell that parent, ‘You’re looking at three years out,’” she says. By that time, those kids aren’t babies anymore.
The pandemic has made a bad situation worse. Nelson points out that doctors, teachers and other essential workers can leave the virus at work. Home-based child care providers don’t have that option. “We have to live here after they go,” she says. “Whatever I don’t clean is a threat.”
The increased risk was too much for some providers ages 60 and older. “Even before the pandemic, everybody was teetering,” Nelson says. She knows some who saw it as a sign to retire.
Nelson has remained open by being flexible; she outfitted an outdoor learning space that she used until it got too cold. “I’ve thought outside the box for so long, I don’t even know where the box is,” she quips.
And still, Nelson says, child care providers like her are often not paid as if they’re essential. Even before the pandemic, Vermont families were spending up to 30 percent of their household income on child care, and some of them have had their wages or hours cut due to COVID-19. Raising her rates is not an option.
She’s been grateful for the state’s emergency COVID-19 aid programs. The money “has made a huge difference,” Nelson says, “but it’s not enough.”
Though she loves her work, she understands the barriers a new college graduate just starting out would encounter pursuing a career as an early childhood educator in Vermont.
The median annual wage for a preschool teacher in the state is $34,650, often without benefits. The median wage for a kindergarten teacher with comparable qualifications is $56,850 plus benefits. “When you consider these career prospects, it’s no wonder young people aren’t joining the field of early education,” says Nelson. “When you factor in student loan debt, the math just doesn’t work out.”
Nelson would like to see state policy makers be as creative as she has been in keeping her doors open. “They’ve proven that the economy relies on us,” she says. “There’s got to be a way to be able to make the field attractive to a next generation.”
‘Our monthly child care payments cost $1,000 more than our mortgage.’
— Keegan Albaugh
It’s not just rural families that struggle to access high-quality, affordable child care. Keegan Albaugh and his partner, Stephanie, live in Burlington’s New North End with their two young daughters, ages 2 and 4.
Despite the fact that both he and Stephanie work full time — Keegan is the fatherhood coordinator at the Janet S. Munt Family Room, Stephanie a program specialist at the University of Vermont Extension — their finances are tight, he says. Both girls are enrolled in child care programs, and roughly a third of the family’s income goes toward paying for them. “Our monthly child care payments cost $1,000 more than our mortgage,” Albaugh says.
They’re not alone: Even with financial assistance, many Vermont families are paying up to 30 percent of their household income on child care.
The Albaugh girls are in two different programs, one in downtown Burlington, the other at the southernmost edge of the city. The hours vary by day. Their parents “sort of make up a schedule and divide and conquer,” Albaugh says. “We’re constantly juggling.”
In addition to his work at the Family Room, Albaugh also founded Dad Guild, a Burlington nonprofit that helps fathers connect. Right now, “folks are stressed,” he says.
He knows one dad who’s taken on another job to pay for child care, though he and his partner already work full time and have just one child. Albaugh cites another family that’s moving out of state. “The cost of child care is a big reason why,” he says.
Albaugh says he knows lots of parents are frustrated with the math: They might be working full time and netting $1,000 a year after paying for child care. Or even losing money.
Sometimes it’s just easier on everyone if one parent stays home with the kids.
Keegan and Stephanie have talked about him leaving his job to care for the girls. It would make financial sense in the short term, but Albaugh is conflicted about abandoning his work. His program “would take a pretty big step backwards” without him, he says.
Albaugh is also concerned about the problems with the system at large.
Considering the high cost of child care, Albaugh was surprised to learn how little child care workers get paid and how few of their positions come with health insurance. “Why can’t we offer health care to the people who are taking care of our children?” he asks. “People should at least be able to afford basic resources and have health care and put away for retirement.”
Albaugh notes the disparity between the low wages child care providers earn and the much-higher salaries of software engineers who build websites. “It seems so ridiculous,” he says. “It’s time for change. It’s time for real investment.”
‘High-quality early childhood education is one of the smartest investments we can make.’
— Kyle Dodson
“Truly miraculous things happen in a child’s brain during the first five years of life,” says Kyle Dodson, president and CEO of the Greater Burlington YMCA. “Every second, a child’s brain makes over a million neural connections, building the foundation upon which all future social and emotional development will rely, as well as academic success and physical health.”
As is often the case in our society, low-income families have an even harder time accessing resources and systems, and child care is no exception. Even with financial assistance, child care is still financially unattainable for many low-income families, and language barriers can make it nearly impossible for New Americans to access child care.
“Quality early child care is the best opportunity to have a positive influence in the life of a child — of a person — and we’re missing this opportunity for over half the kids in Vermont who need child care right now, because it’s either not available or unaffordable,” Dodson says.
Dodson notes that the Y has worked hard to develop a truly high-quality child care program, housed in a specially designed early child development wing at the Y’s new building. Each room is filled with natural light and windows so kids can look through them, and child-size wooden furniture and play structures. The staff meet high standards, as well. The Y’s child care programs are accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children and have received five stars from Vermont’s Quality Rating and Improvement System.
“We can’t charge families enough to cover the cost of the high-quality care we provide,” Dodson says — the reason it’s all possible is because the Y is a nonprofit. Providing health, wellness and child care resources to the greater Burlington community is part of its mission, and only through the generosity of donors can the Y subsidize its child care programs.
“There are innovative solutions out there,” says Dodson. “I have worked closely with the City of Burlington over the last couple of years to support the Early Learning Initiative, a public-private collaboration designed to improve access to child care for the city’s most vulnerable children.”
But Dodson stresses that the child care crisis needs a systemic, statewide solution.
“High-quality early childhood education is one of the smartest investments we can make to build a better Vermont for today’s kids and for the generations to come. It’s time for Vermont policy makers to be future-focused, and one of the best ways to invest in our state’s future is by prioritizing early childhood education for all of Vermont’s children.”
‘If we’re not able to close the gap in kindergarten, it starts to widen.’
— Rachel Whalen
As a kindergarten teacher at Union Elementary School in Montpelier, Rachel Whalen sees firsthand the advantages that high-quality child care provides.
Contrary to popular belief, she says, kids don’t necessarily need to know their numbers and letters when they enter kindergarten. What they really need are opportunities to interact with peers in guided, monitored settings, where they can learn skills such as problem solving, conflict resolution, how to be assertive, taking care of others and taking care of materials. How to be a student, basically.
“If I could wave a magic wand and give any kid what they need for kindergarten, that is what I’d give them,” Whalen says.
Before students transition to kindergarten, Whalen communicates with their parents and preschool teachers to learn about the child’s experience. “There’s a lot of really great stuff that we can get from working with a trained early childhood educator,” she says. “The context and background we get gives us a huge head start as we work to help each and every one of our students launch their educational journey on the right foot.”
Research shows that children who have access to high-quality early childhood education experience greater success in school, relationships and life.
Kids who don’t have access to those opportunities and who struggle to learn those basic skills are at a disadvantage. It creates a gap between them and their more fortunate peers. “If we’re not able to close that gap in kindergarten,” Whalen warns, “it starts to widen, and it becomes harder and harder to close..”
Knowing all of this, she and her husband, also a teacher, were intent on finding a great child care provider for their young daughter. Whalen says it was surprisingly difficult.
Both of them needed to be at school at 7:30 a.m., but many programs don’t open before 8. There just weren’t many options close to home or school. At one point, the couple considered leaving their daughter with a provider they didn’t really trust. “I just felt sick,” Whalen says. “That’s not OK.”
Finally they got lucky and found a skilled early childhood educator who is close to the school and loves to care for teachers’ kids. Whalen can drop off her daughter at 7:15 a.m. and make it to work on time. Finding her “was literally a stars-aligned moment,” Whalen says.
But it didn’t entirely ease her child care concerns. “If it’s hard for us,” she wonders, “what is it like for families who don’t have the same financial means? Access to high-quality child care should not depend on luck or how much money a family has.”
Whalen wants lawmakers in Montpelier to address the child care crisis with the same urgency they had when facing COVID-19. She wants them to “invest money, invest time, invest in people.”
“I want to see action,” she says.
‘It’s a huge recruitment opportunity for businesses.’
— Michael Seaver
Making a big investment in a functioning, high-quality child care system will boost Vermont’s economy, says Michael Seaver, the president of People’s United Bank in Vermont.
Seaver, who got his start as a teller nearly 40 years ago, didn’t always feel this way; he once thought the state could address child care by shifting K-12 education funding. Over the last year and a half, he changed his mind.
Countless conversations with other businesses and with the bank’s own employees have convinced Seaver that we need to do more. “A lot more,” he says.
The child care crisis isn’t just affecting parents; it has ripple effects in our communities. Seaver mentions a dog-grooming business in Colchester whose owner had to close her shop because she couldn’t find enough workers; she’s now grooming dogs herself from home. “That storefront has been vacant for the past 16 to 18 months,” Seaver reports.
His bank has raised its starting salary and benefits package to attract entry-level employees. Today they make $15 to $16 an hour even with no previous experience. Those full-time jobs come with health care, paid time off, family leave and employee stock ownership — and still the bank has trouble filling them.
“Everybody today needs more employees,” Seaver says. “There’s not a firm I talk with who will tell me they have enough.”
The lack of child care is partly to blame. He’s observed a pattern: When employees have their first child, they often return to work. But after their second or third child, the cost of child care compounds. “That’s when we lose them from the workplace,” Seaver says. And replacing employees is expensive.
He believes Vermont should distinguish itself by having the best early childhood education system in the country. Not only would that help parents stay in the workforce, it would also attract new talent from outside the state to relocate here. “It’s a huge recruitment opportunity for businesses,” Seaver suggests.
He also points out that Vermonters already spend a lot of money on this problem — but the costs aren’t entirely visible. “The costs come in a lifetime,” he says. Kids who fall behind early on are more likely to be incarcerated, to be unemployed, to rely on the social safety net.
Putting more money toward child care would also mean that providers and parents were making — and spending — more, which would benefit local businesses and communities.
“It’s an investment that has a demonstrated return,” Seaver says of early childhood education, “which suggests that it’s a good thing to do, as well as the right thing to do.”
It’s a message he’s shared recently with legislative committees and with fellow members of the Vermont Business Roundtable. Seaver is pressing them to take bold action now.
If we wait, he says, “we’ll lose another generation of kids.”
Feeling motivated to take action?
Visit letsgrowkids.org/mobilize to find out how to get involved.