Supporting Quality Education & Childcare

This week’s Addison Independent candidate forum focuses on two intertwined issues that are central to my candidacy: education and childcare. Here are the dual prompts and my responses:

First, the ratio of cost to quality outcomes is the primary issue in education/cost of living. What specific measures would you propose to get the best value out of the educational dollars we currently spend? Would you seek to reduce total education spending as student population declines? Do you support the initiatives under Act 46 as a way to help contain education costs and improve educational opportunities for the smallest schools? Write 350-500 words.

I am the mother of school-aged children, served on local school boards, and have spent years working on education issues. I chaired the Mary Hogan School Board, co-chaired the ACSU unification committee, and chaired the ACSD finance committee. I began my career as an education finance analyst and later worked for the College budget office. I have a deep understanding of education budgets, finance, and policy.

School funding must be stable, sufficient, equitable, and sustainable. School boards cannot appropriately plan if they don’t know what to expect from year to year. We must ensure funding meets the needs of students regardless of where they live or attend school, and that our funding mechanism is fair and reasonable for the resources of our small state and its residents. As a school board leader, I regularly oversaw a budget process that invested in student opportunities and equity, secured budget reductions where most appropriate, and advanced the fiscal health of the school district.

Unification of governance under Act 46 has been successful for most area schools, with benefits and challenges emerging as schools adjust to the new structure. Not all towns have supported unification; I respect their democratic decisions and expect discussions will be ongoing as they strive to serve their students well. In ACSD, unification has enabled a new curriculum, enhanced educational equity, expanded opportunities for many students, and spurred solid budget savings and lower property taxes for many towns.

However, these gains didn’t stem from singular ratios or measurements, but rather through engaged communities, strong leadership and communication, excellent teachers, and a local commitment to education. As enrollment continues to decline, we must prioritize student opportunities, improve equity, and maintain a realistic assessment of the viability of our smallest schools.

While Vermont has strong schools, not all students succeed equally. Students living in poverty, English language learners, students with disabilities, and students of color are often not served well by schools that lack the resources, diversity, and expertise to meet their needs. Technical education is often not well integrated, so some students miss valuable skill-based learning opportunities. While Vermont boasts a robust high school graduation rate, too few Vermonters complete higher education at traditional or technical colleges.

Over the past two decades as the number of students has declined, the needs of students have increased. Addison County faces increasing poverty; 41 percent of elementary students now qualify for free and reduced lunch. Schools serve as ground zero for supporting children, providing expanded food programs, mental health counseling, homelessness assistance, and social services. These increased needs strain school staff and budgets.

Our small towns and schools are vital to Vermont. Thus, robust local engagement in school decisions is important, including listening to students about their experiences and goals. Recently we have asked a lot of our school boards, teachers, and students. I have been proud to be a part of this engagement and change. We need to allow the results of this work to solidify while always keeping student needs front and center.

Second, do you think the state needs to establish early education programs and, if so, how would you fund them? Similarly, Vermont has a shortage of early childcare providers (infants to 3 years old) that is placing a huge burden on young families — costing a small fortune in most cases and keeping young parents out of the workforce. What specific plans would you propose to address this problem? 250-350 words.

High-quality care and education for our youngest Vermonters is one of the most important long-term investments we can make to support the health of children and families, augment economic and gender equality, stimulate economic development, and enhance educational outcomes. As a state senator, ensuring access to high-quality early childhood education and care would be one of my priorities.

Our communities are fortunate to have strong early childhood programs, including pioneers like the Parent-Child Center and Mary Johnson Children’s Center, as well as excellent home-based and school-centered programs. New public-private partnerships, such as the program at Whiting School, could supply collaborative and innovative blueprints for providing early care, enhancing rural economic development, and supporting families where they live.

I have served on boards of early childhood programs, led efforts to sustain the Middlebury Cooperative Nursery School after significant financial hurdles, and worked as a school board member to maintain pre-kindergarten partnerships between local schools and early childhood programs.

My plan for expanding early childhood programs would include:

• Support young families through passage of paid family leave legislation providing at least 10 weeks of paid time off for parents to care for new babies, newly adopted children, or ill family members.

• Make childcare more affordable by increasing subsidies for Vermonters with low incomes and incrementally expanding universal early childhood education beyond 10 hours per week for 3- and 4-year-olds.

• Enhance program quality, and support, retain, and attract early childhood educators by targeting wage increases, and increasing access to professional development through scholarships and loan forgiveness programs.

• Expand program capacity through funding, technical assistance, and partnerships with new and existing centers, home-based providers, and schools to add capacity for infants and toddlers, co-locate programs in existing school buildings, and spark new programs in areas with the highest need.

• Secure funding through a mix of existing childcare and education funds, state and local economic development funds, new revenues from employee contributions, federal and state health care funding, and private sources.

I look forward to ensuring that any family who needs care for their children can find high-quality, affordable options close to home or work.