By Tiffany Danitz Pache, VTDigger
More children in Vermont have access to prekindergarten programs through a new law that gives families 10 hours of free instruction a week. Families, however, continue to struggle to find good quality child care, according to an advocacy group.
Act 166, the Universal Pre-k law, gives parents vouchers to send children age 3, 4 or 5 to public or private pre-kindergarten programs. The law, which mandated statewide programs, went into effect last year. Many communities were part of a state incentive program for pre-k programs prior to Act 166.
In 2015, a new report from Building Bright Futures, released at a State House press conference Wednesday, Jan. 11, showed that 10 percent more children accessed pre-k programs in 2015.
Sarah Squirrell, executive director of Building Bright Futures, said Vermont took “a huge step in the right direction when it passed Act 166.”
“This report provides data and information,” said Squirrell. “Data is a temperature gauge. It can tell us we have a problem, but it won’t tell us how to fix it. So, it is our job to turn data into information, information into insight and insight into action. It is time today to roll up our sleeves and get to work.”
Researchers found that finding affordable child care remains a challenge for families. Less than half of parents seeking care for infants and toddlers can access registered programs. The majority of children in Vermont live in homes where both parents work and parents spend nearly 40 percent of their income on child care. The state has 1,436 registered child care and early learning programs, according to the report.
The report, “How are Vermont’s Young Children and Families?”, provides a snapshot of how the state is meeting the needs of children and families. It documents the success and the challenges the state faces in the areas of family, health, safety, early care and learning and family economic well-being. It includes recommendations made by the governor’s blue ribbon commission on financing high quality affordable child care.
Other findings include:
Vermont and Massachusetts are tied for the lowest percentage of uninsured children in the nation.
Childhood immunization rates are up.
Fewer Vermont families are living in poverty than in 2009.
More children are becoming wards of the state, mainly due to the opiate crisis.
Better supports are needed for families in crisis.
More children need developmental screenings.
The number of children under age 9 placed in foster care went up 41 percent from 2012 to 2014; the number jumped 62 percent for children under the age of 3, according to the report.
Young children in state custody numbered 728 in the first quarter of 2015 and increased to 822 in the second quarter of 2016.
Gov. Phil Scott said in his inaugural speech last week that early education would be a priority. At the press conference Wednesday, Jan. 11, Scott said that offering affordable child care and quality early education will help the state’s economy.
“I think it is important that we work to improve the foundation we lay for our kids at home and at school,” Scott said. “We need to make Vermont a place where young families can afford to live, and strengthening early care and learning is key to realizing that vision.”
Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson said high quality affordable child care is a social and economic imperative. “Governor Scott talked about making Vermont affordable and access to high quality affordable child care is key to that conversation,” Johnson said.
Building Bright Futures is a statewide nonprofit and public-private partnership that focuses on improving the lives of children and families. The group advises the governor and the Legislature on early childhood issues.