New Norwich committee to examine high cost of child care

  • As a Democratic candidate for governor, Rebecca Holcombe, of Norwich, Vt., has had to do her campaigning during the coronavirus pandemic from her home via phone and teleconference. She is photographed in downtown Norwich on April 16, 2020. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/26/2020 7:12:55 PM
Modified: 11/26/2020 7:18:21 PM

NORWICH — A shortage of affordable child care in the Upper Valley has one town wondering whether it should step in to help parents find and pay for their children’s early education.

Norwich is forming a committee of educators, town officials and residents who plan to explore two questions this winter: Should child care be part of the municipality’s core responsibilities, and how much would such an endeavor cost?

The group, which is still being formed, will consist of seven people, including former Vermont Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe, and is expected to present findings to the Selectboard by Feb. 10.

Its charge recognizes a widely acknowledged problem within the region — young couples often can’t afford to pay for their child’s day care and preschool costs, or find spaces in existing programs.

“While it’s been recognized as a problem, it’s always been thought of as something that families are to solve for themselves,” Roger Arnold, the Norwich’s Selectboard’s vice chairman, said Tuesday.

Arnold, who helped write the child care committee’s goals, said it will explore how the town could reverse that paradigm, potentially providing more support to parents returning to the workforce.

“I think we’re seeing a lot of families take on a lot of creative solutions for their child care needs,” he said. “But I think this recognizes that this is a public problem and, as a public problem, government should look to solve it.”

The majority of Vermont families struggle to find regulated care for their children, according to the nonprofit Let’s Grow Kids.

The group’s 2020 analysis found that 62% of infants and 27% of toddlers in Vermont do not have access to regulated programs. Meanwhile, roughly a third of the state’s preschoolers don’t have access to full-day, full-year child care.

And even with financial assistance, Vermont families can spend almost 30% of their annual income on child care, Let’s Grow Kids found.

The Marion Cross School hosts a half-day pre-K program on-site Monday through Thursday, while state funding helps pay for a total of 10 hours per week of care for 35 weeks at the Norwich Nursery School and Child Care Center of Norwich.

However, there are still families who find it difficult to locate either the right level of care or space for their children in programs facing a large demand from families drawn to the Upper Valley’s core employment centers, according to Holcombe, a Norwich resident.

Holcombe, who ran for governor in the Democratic primary this year, said those challenges are particularly concerning because of the importance of early education.

Research shows that the first five years of a child’s life are the most important for healthy brain development, and the education students receive in those years can affect their prospects, she said.

“I think this is one of the most important investments, if it’s done well,” Holcombe said. “People need safe, supportive, responsive environments when they’re young so that they can enter school ready to learn and ready to take advantage of the opportunities that we provide them.”

The thought of using taxpayer funding to support early childhood education isn’t new, though, and communities in Vermont have been “inching” in that direction for years, she added.

In 2014, Vermont passed Act 166, sometimes called the Universal Pre-Kindergarten Law, that now offers state funds for all 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds not yet enrolled for kindergarten. Since then, Holcombe said, she’s heard of towns supplementing state dollars with their own or even providing municipally owned space to private child care providers to help alleviate costs.

Still, Holcombe doesn’t expect the committee’s work to be easy, and members will likely have to sift through complicated state and federal funding schemes before making a recommendation.

Selectboard member Mary Layton, who also will serve on the child care committee, said the group plans to poll parents and request public input on their struggles.

The committee’s charge is so big that it may ask for more time, especially since it’s possible recommendations could involve the use of taxpayer funds. The group, she said, hopes to start meeting next month.

“I think everybody involved knows it’s a very thorny question,” said Layton, who added that “child care is particularly expensive.”

Holcombe and Layton will be joined on the committee by Jamie Rosenfeld, and educator at the Hood Museum of Art, as well as Norwich Planning Commission member Brian Loeb. Layton said she also hopes to recruit people from the business community and Norwich School Board.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.




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