VTAEYC’s virtual Capitol Hill visits: Future of early childhood education depends on comprehensive investment

by Ann Moore

At the end of February, I participated in NAEYC’s 2022 virtual Public Policy Forum. It was a power-packed two days hearing from speakers about federal policy and advocacy. The work in Washington impacts our lives, our field, and the lives of young children and families in Vermont. 

Imagine – over 1200 early childhood professionals who are NAEYC members came together from all over the country to learn about the issues and bills before Congress – the decisions being made that will impact early childhood education.  

Next, we met with our State Team to discuss a new Public Policy Committee for VTAEYC. We also planned virtual Capitol Hill Visits for the following week. 

The Hill Visits ran throughout the week, with many early childhood educators from licensed centers, registered family homes, and public and private schools. We meet with staff from the Washington D.C. and Vermont offices of all of the Vermont Congressional Delegation: Senator Patrick Leahy, Senator Bernie Sanders, and Representative Peter Welch. 

One theme emerged across all three Hill Visits: Early childhood educators recommend that our lawmakers begin to take a systemic approach to addressing early childhood education. For far too long it has been a piecemeal approach. Improving one part without addressing another will continue to perpetuate disparities and create additional unintended consequences. 

Wow, now more than ever, I understand how helpful the federal Covid relief funds have been for children, families, and early childhood education programs. So many participants expressed their gratitude for the hard work of our congressional delegation in helping to keep programs open. The funds helped to pay staff, purchase needed equipment and supplies, improve outdoor classroom space, and provide health care coverage so that early childhood educators could remain focused on serving families and children amid a worldwide pandemic.

During the visits, I also learned more about Vermont’s early childhood educators’ passion for their work and how committed they each are to supporting the development and learning of young children. They also connect their work to Vermont’s economy – recognizing that as they serve young children, the families are able to work. What powerful words from such thoughtful and committed individuals. 

I also learned from these visits that early childhood educators in Vermont have deep concerns about the future of their field unless the public investment in early childhood education and childcare isn’t realized this year. 

One director explained that she will lose her health insurance coverage at the end of April. It had only become affordable temporarily during the pandemic. 

Another shared how helpful the suspension of her student loan payments during Covid had been, but that this form of relief was only a stopgap measure. 

It sounds like a broken system, but as one participant put it,

“This is not a broken system; rather, it’s a broke system!”

So many reflected on the importance of their work, yet with the lack of living wages, few benefits, and mounting student loan debt, it is not sustainable. They also reflected on how difficult it is to attract and retain qualified early childhood educators for the same reasons; the benefits and wages are just not there, let alone commensurate to the important work of early childhood educators.

Many offered suggestions. One theme emerged across all three Hill Visits: Early childhood educators recommend that our lawmakers begin to take a systemic approach to addressing early childhood education. For far too long it has been a piecemeal approach. Improving one part without addressing another will continue to perpetuate disparities and create additional unintended consequences. 

Toddler and woman at artmaking table

It sounds like a broken system, but as one participant put it, “This is not a broken system; rather, it’s a broke system!” It seems that without adequate funding, such as is the plan in Build Back Better, the field simply can’t move forward, grow the workforce, offer a career to qualified early childhood educators, and serve the number of children and families in Vermont that need early childhood programs to support their lives and set young children up for success in school and life.

Ann Moore is VTAEYC’s Membership Director.