Vermont’s child care, early education administration is ‘fundamentally broken,’ report finds

Kids attending the Part 2 Kids childcare hub at the Allen Brook School in Williston eat breakfast after morning meeting in September 2020. The authors of a new report, which was mandated by the Legislature last year, recommended creating a new governmental entity to oversee child care and early education in Vermont. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The state apparatus governing Vermont’s child care and early education systems is “fundamentally broken,” according to a new report that found staffing shortages, disorganization and a lack of coordination among state agencies. 

Vermont should consider creating a “single unit of government focused on early childhood,” with one specific person in charge, the authors of the 51-page report wrote, noting that the system “cannot in its current configuration reach the state’s goals for the success of Vermont’s children and families.”

The report, which was mandated by the Vermont Legislature last year, was written by Foresight Law and Policy, a D.C.-based education law firm, and Watershed Advisors, a New Orleans education consulting company.

The authors are not the first people to reach that conclusion, or to recommend reorganizing the programs. For years, state and local education officials and child care advocates have raised concerns that the state’s programs for young children are disorganized and ineffective.

Friday’s report “details what we’ve known for years,” said Aly Richards, the CEO of Let’s Grow Kids, a child care advocacy nonprofit, in a statement. “Our child care system isn't working for anyone — not for families, children, early childhood educators, and certainly not for our workforce and economy.”

The firms drew their conclusions from interviews and focus groups with more than 85 “early childhood stakeholders” and reviewed analyses and data from previous publications.

They found that Vermont’s early childhood programs are spread across too many areas of state government, which are understaffed and often struggle to coordinate with each other. 

Pre-K is jointly administered by the Vermont Agency of Education and the Agency of Human Services. Within the Human Services agency, the Department for Children and Families licenses child care centers, handles child care subsidies and oversees resources for young children with special needs. 

But the Department of Health and the Department of Mental Health, which are within the Agency of Human Services but separate from the Department for Children and Families, also offer services for young children. 

Meanwhile, children attend pre-K in both public and private programs, while most child care programs are private. That can cause confusion, as the requirements for different types of programs may differ. And many private companies fear that state officials favor their public counterparts at their expense. 

“Both (the Agency of Education) and (the Agency of Human Services) play some role in oversight in different settings, and we heard multiple stories from providers about the two agencies providing guidance that was misaligned — or even contradictory,” the report reads. “In some cases providers told us about asking one agency about an issue, receiving an answer they did not like, and then simply going to the other agency to get a different answer.”

State child care administrators also don’t collect or organize “useful overarching data” that can give a clear picture of how well the systems are working, the report found. 

Another report, also commissioned by the Legislature, will focus on the costs of potential changes to the system. That report, which has been contracted to the RAND Corporation, is due in December of 2023. 

Elected officials in Vermont have tried for years to reshuffle the state’s early childhood programs. Since Vermont’s universal pre-K program began operating in 2016, it has sparked complaints that its joint governance structure — shared between the Agencies of Education and Human Services — is unwieldy. 

Multiple appointed state officials and lawmakers have called for the administration of pre-K to be folded into the Agency of Education. 

Last year, Gov. Phil Scott proposed a solution that would go even further: He recommended folding pre-K and almost all child care programs into the Agency of Education, with some going to the Department for Children and Families. In his proposal, the departments of Health and Mental Health would retain some responsibilities as well. 

But those efforts have not yet come to fruition. 

Jason Maulucci, a spokesperson for Scott, said that the governor has made child care a top priority.

“If a governance change would improve affordability and access, he is all ears,” Maulucci said. “He has not reviewed the final report in detail yet, and will evaluate it as we approach the next legislative session with members of his Administration through that lens.”

Spokespeople for the agencies of Education and Human Services said they welcomed the report’s recommendations.  

“The administration of these programs is inherently complex, so we welcome getting feedback on how we might be able to improve the structure of these programs inside state government,” Suzanne Sprague, a spokesperson for the Agency of Education, said in an email.

“We appreciate getting this new report and we’re reviewing the recommendations closely,” said Miranda Gray, deputy commissioner of Vermont’s Child Development Division at the Department for Children and Families.

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Peter D'Auria

About Peter

Peter D’Auria covers education for VTDigger. Prior to moving to Vermont, he worked for The Jersey Journal, The Chilkat Valley News and Willamette Week. He is originally from Portland, Oregon.

Email: [email protected]

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