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Despite expanded capacity, Vermont child care centers are short thousands of spots

Kay Curtis sets up the new childcare center at the Brattleboro Retreat which is for the children of opioid addicts who are receiving their treatment.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
The state needs nearly 9,000 more spaces for young children, according to a recent report. For reference, that's more than the number of children born in Vermont each year.

Last year, Thembi Muhlauri installed a fence in front of her home in Hartford. She bought playground equipment and tiny furniture, redid the floors and bathroom and painted one room purple. That was only possible thanks to a state grant for $10,000 to convert the bottom level of her home into a child care center. With spots for six children, it opened in September.

“Today I’m here, so proud of the work that I’ve put [in]. And I’m so thankful,” Muhlauri testified to the Vermont House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development this week.

Now, she’s working on doubling her center’s capacity using another grant. That’s because of all the calls Muhlauri gets.

“Every day, I don’t know how many parents I turn away to tell them I’m full, I don’t have a spot. And it’s heartbreaking,” she said.

Muhlauri is among the Vermont child care providers who’ve collectively added more than 1,000 new spots last year.

But that’s nowhere near enough to meet demand. The state needs nearly 9,000 more spaces for young children, according to a recent report from Let’s Grow Kids, a research and advocacy nonprofit. For reference, less than 6,000 children are born in Vermont each year. Including closures, child care programs in Vermont added less than 100 new spots since before the pandemic.

Aly Richards, the director of Let’s Grow Kids, says filling that gap between supply and demand will only be possible if early childhood educators have better pay and support, in addition to capacity investments.

“No spots without workforce, they are absolutely intertwined,” she testified to lawmakers.

"Every day, I don’t know how many parents I turn away to tell them I’m full, I don’t have a spot. And it’s heartbreaking."
Thembi Muhlauri

The state has started that process with legislation passed last year that set a goal to better compensate educators while keeping child care affordable. That work has just started — legislators are waiting on findings about how to fund and implement a new child care system.

In the meantime, state agencies have administered over $3.2 million in grants since 2018 — like the one Muhlauri received — to increase capacity at child care centers. They’ve also helped fund scholarships for early childhood educators that went into effect last year.

That investment has already started to pay off, according to Alyson Grzyb, a professor in early childhood education at the Community College of Vermont.

“I have noticed, this year, a significant increase in the number of early childhood education students,” she testified. “As long as those things continue to be in place, I think that the workforce will expand.”

But Richards is pushing for more support from lawmakers this session. Specifically, she wants a workforce bill currently under consideration to include funding to better recruit and retain child care staff.

“You can’t open without the workforce,” she said. "The capacity building does nothing to support the workforce."

Lexi Krupp is a corps member for Report for America, a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and regions.

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Lexi covers science and health stories for Vermont Public.
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