A state senator Monday spent more than an hour Monday working at a childcare center in Colchester as part of an effort to raise awareness about low wages earned by childcare providers.
The legislature is scheduled to begin debate in the coming weeks on a bill allowing early educators to unionize. Supporters say the effort will allow them to negotiate better pay and benefits and, at the same time, have a greater say in establishing workforce standards and programs to boost professional development.
State Sen. Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden, in photo) spent the morning with Tammy Turchin and her staff at Adventures of Young Minds Enrichment Center in Colchester, learning what quality care for early learners looks like.
Ashe sat in on an early morning dance exercise where the kids danced as different animals, and then sat down to draw pictures of what they did this past weekend. Ashe drew a picture of himself skiing. The kids also made a giant, finger-painted banner welcoming the senator to the center. The visit certainly left an impression on the young pol.
"Walking in early educators' shoes today allowed me to experience a day in their life — filled with stress, caring, professionalism," said Ashe. "We always hear that early educators are critical to Vermont's kids, yet we pay them dismally and don't treat them like the skilled professionals they are. What I saw today speaks to the need for a total shift in how the public views this work."
Turchin is one of numerous childcare-center owners around the state supporting Ashe's bill to improve the lives and education of the children in their care by enabling early educators to create a union. Turchin opened her center to Ashe because wants elected officials to see first-hand why they are fighting for a seat at the table.
Turchin purchased AOYM two years ago and has more than two decades in the profession. She said a union would give these educators the respect they deserve by giving them a greater voice in the state.
"I think really this legislation is about a group of people coming together to show that we have quality childcare in Vermont and that we want some respect for our business as a profession," said Turchin. "We work really hard doing what we do and love what we do, but just don't get enough respect from the community for what we do."
Turchin said providing better pay and benefits for childcare workers wouldn't necessarily raise rates for parents. "We're looking to keep the same costs and quality for our families," said Turchin. Her center is licensed for 28 kids ages 6 weeks to 6 years; she has six staffers (including herself) and other than paid days off and a break on childcare costs, Turchin isn't able to offer any benefits.
The legislation — H.97 in the House and S.29 in the Senate — has been endorsed by Gov. Peter Shumlin, 53 representatives and 11 senators from all three major parties. It is expected to receive its first hearings in the House in the coming weeks.
There are 10,000 early educators in Vermont. In the past nine months they have formed their own trade union: Vermont Early Educators United, a project of the American Federation of Teachers, Vermont. They are seeking the right for center-based and home-based providers to unionize. The childcare educators hope to increase pay and benefits for their workforce and have a greater say in rules and regulations that are enacted to govern their profession. Many childcare workers do not receive help for professional development, nor do many receive livable wage or benefits of any kind.
Meanwhile, Gov. Shumlin proposed, in his budget, to expand the availability of publicly funded pre-K education throughout Vermont by removing the cap on how many 3-to-5-year-old students can be enrolled. The incremental cost to the state's education fund is roughly $4000 per student, with a few dozen added every year.
In his budget address, Shumlin noted that he sees a link between spending on early education and incarceration. "The evidence is irrefutable: the years up to age 5 are a critical time for brain development. It should come as no surprise that one dollar spent on early education saves $7 to $16 later in life. To give all of our children a bright future and bring long-term fiscal discipline to corrections, special education and human services spending, we must take bold, preventative action."
If, over time, half of Vermont’s eligible children are enrolled in a pre-K program, which Shumlin noted is an optimistic goal, it would cost about $14 million.
Editor's note: Sen. Tim Ashe is the live-in partner of Seven Days publisher Paula Routly.
Senate bill: Download S-029
House bill: Download H-097