Meg Seely: Child care and Vermont's opportunity gap

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Last week I listened to the CEO of the Save the Children Action Network (SCAN), an international organization that is building bipartisan political will to invest in kids in the U.S. and abroad. Mark Kennedy Shriver and long-time child advocate and actor, Jennifer Garner commended the tripartisan focus in Vermont on increasing access to high-quality, affordable child care for all families who need it.

SCAN came here to shine a national spotlight on what Vermont is doing right. From the highest levels of state government to everyday conversations in our local communities it seems everyone is talking about Vermont's child care crisis and our policymakers are vowing to take action.

It's a hopeful and exciting time. But it's also important to recognize that Vermont's child care challenge has been long studied, discussed and well-understood. The time has come for us to stop talking about change and to start making change.

If we act now to make significant investments in early care and learning, we'll be one step closer to leveling the playing field for Vermont's children and closing a major opportunity gap that leaves many Vermonters struggling to build bright, secure futures no matter how hard they work.

Vermont's severe shortage of high-quality, affordable child care has created an opportunity gap that we at the Vermont Community Foundation see again and again as we engage with local communities across the state. When children don't get the nurturing care they need at a young age, they arrive at school less prepared to learn and research shows the achievement gap continues to widen from that point forward. And when families cannot access or afford child care, it can have a devasting economic impact on their ability to provide for their children as well as participate as contributing members of their community.

During her visit to a high-quality child care center in Burlington, Jennifer spoke candidly about her mother growing up extremely poor in rural Oklahoma but managing to be the first in her family to attend college. Jennifer said she grew up middle-class but was surrounded by generational rural poverty; at an early age she identified an opportunity gap within her own family: "I was very aware of the differences in my opportunities and those of my neighbors in West Virginia and those of my cousins," she said. "It just really rankled me."

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As an early childhood developmental therapist and a special education teacher, I know exactly what Jennifer was talking about. My husband and I co-founded Mt Tom School in Woodstock where we had the privilege of caring for Vermont infants to school-age children and providing parenting classes and support for their families. Later in my career I worked as an elementary school educator and principal where I witnessed the opportunity gap faced by children who didn't have access to early learning and who entered kindergarten significantly behind their peers.

The first five years of life represent the most critical time in human development that lays the foundation for success in life. Investing in our youngest citizens will lead us to closing the opportunity gaps too many of our children experience and instead, will offer them an equal chance to succeed.

We're in an unprecedented moment of opportunity in Vermont with local and state policymakers across the political spectrum calling for increased investments in early care and learning. But we also have a very long way to go to reverse child care crisis that's not only hurting our children and families but is also holding back Vermont's economy by making it harder and harder for young families to live and work here and depriving our businesses of the robust workforce they need to thrive.

To quote one of our state leaders, President Pro Tem Senator Tim Ashe: "It's not just about preparing the next generation so they can succeed, but it's also a huge economic development and workforce program by extension because the parents are freed up to get back into the workforce and continue their own education knowing their kids are in a safe, enriched environment."

It's time for us to act and I encourage Vermonters to educate their legislators about how the child care crisis is creating one of the biggest opportunity gaps in their lives. If we stand together, we can make Vermont the first state to make high-quality, affordable child care a reality for all families who need it.

Meg Seely is the chair of the Vermont Community Foundation and a longtime early childhood professional. She lives in Bridgewater, Vermont.


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