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Report: Major Changes Needed for 'Broken' Early Childhood Ed System


Published July 6, 2022 at 4:37 p.m.

Next Generation childcare center in 2018 - FILE: GLENN RUSSELL
  • File: Glenn Russell
  • Next Generation childcare center in 2018
A new report commissioned by the Vermont legislature calls for the creation of a new unit of state government focused entirely on early childhood education. Released last Friday, the 51-page "Vermont Child Care and Early Childhood Education Systems Analysis" characterizes the state's existing early childhood governance model as "fundamentally broken."

The study,  jointly authored by Foresight Law + Policy and Watershed Advisors, is based on interviews and focus groups with more than 85 stakeholders in Vermont's early childhood education system, as well as the review of dozens of state reports on the topic. It calls for the current model of early childhood education governance — in which the Vermont Agency of Education and the Vermont Agency of Human Services share responsibilities — to be replaced by a new entity focused entirely on early childhood matters.

That stand-alone unit, the report states, should be overseen by a "single, empowered leader" who reports to both secretaries of education and human services.

Currently, "the lack of a high-level leader to whom a diverse set of stakeholders can raise awareness of concerns and have confidence they are empowered to solve" makes the early childhood system difficult to manage, the report states. "No single elevated leader feels accountable to all the groups needed for a successful early childhood system."

Creating a "senior empowered leader" vested with decision-making authority  in the early childhood system "is the single most important change that could come out of this Systems Analysis process," the report states.

Janet McLaughlin, executive director of the Vermont Association for the Education of Young Children, said she found the report "affirming."

"When early childhood does not have its own unit carved out, there is no one tasked with navigating that complexity and providing the transparency, coherence, and resources to create the system we know kids and families need," McLaughlin wrote in an email to Seven Days. "As a result, the burden often falls to under-resourced early childhood educators and program leaders to navigate multiple, sometimes conflicting systems and results in poorer outcomes for children." 

Vermont has what is known as a"mixed-delivery system" for childcare and early childhood education, meaning childcare centers, home-based programs, public schools and publicly funded programs such as Head Start all provide services.

Under Act 166 of 2014, the state provides 10 hours a week of publicly funded preschool to children starting at age 3. That universal pre-K program, which is offered through both public schools and state-approved private childcare providers, is currently overseen jointly by the Agency of Education and the Agency of Human Services.

The Agency of Education is responsible for early childhood special education services for kids 3 and older. Meanwhile, the Child Development Division of the Department for Children and Families — part of the Agency of Human Services — oversees childcare subsidies, licensing, quality ratings, and early intervention for children under 3 with disabilities or developmental delays. The Agency of Human Service's Maternal & Child Health Division and Department of Mental Health hold additional responsibilities.
This fragmentation of authority has created inconsistent oversight, varied expectations and levels of support for early childhood workers, and differing definitions of program quality, the report states.

In the case of oversight, "we heard multiple stories from providers about the two agencies providing guidance that was misaligned — or even contradictory," the authors of the report wrote. "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."

Though the Agency of Education and Agency of Human Services "repeatedly reminded us that they are in fact collaborating with each other," the report states, "if they are actually collaborating, and providers are not seeing positive impacts from that collaboration, that reinforces the idea that the problem is a structural one."

Vermont's early childhood community "deserves better than the current structures state government has set up to serve it," the report concludes.

The governance study isn't the only report required by Act 45, which the Vermont legislature passed in 2021. A early childhood education financing study — to be conducted by the RAND Corporation and due out in January  — will determine the cost and potential funding sources for a revamped childcare system.

The administration and legislature will then review both reports' recommendations to determine a course of action. Any major change in governance structure comes with "potentially substantial administrative complexity" and will require the development of a transition plan, the report states.

Aly Richards, CEO of early childhood advocacy group Let's Grow Kids, said in an emailed statement on Tuesday that the governance report affirmed what many experts in the field have known for years about the state's "severely under-resourced and under-invested in" childcare system. The report is a crucial step in transforming the state's childcare system into one that's more fair, accessible and accountable, she said.

Miranda Gray, deputy commissioner of the Agency of Human Services' Child Development Division, said her agency appreciates the thorough analysis and is in the process of digesting the recommendations, in collaboration with the Agency of Education and governor's office.

 "Ultimately, our goal is policies and governance that creates access and affordability for families," she said.

On July 11, the report's authors, Foresight Law + Policy and Watershed Advisors, will present their early childhood governance recommendations and discuss next steps for implementation. Click here for more info.

Read the full report below: