In August of 2023, Aly Richards, the executive director of Let’s Grow Kids, received a mysterious text, asking “Are you under forty?” Shortly afterwards, she heard from a colleague who had “wonderful news.” Richards had just been chosen by the Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility as its “Young Changemaker of the Year.” The award was granted because of Richard’s leadership in the passage of Act 76 (the Child Care Bill of 2023), an historic piece of legislation passed in May 2023.
Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility describes itself as the “progressive voice on business organization and the business voice on progressive issues.” The organization had selected Richards as the Young (under 40) Changemaker because of “her proven capacity to effectively advance innovative solutions to a clear societal challenge while simultaneously supporting economic growth in Vermont.”
But the battle for a child care bill had not been quickly or easily won.
Back in 2000, Vermont philanthropists Carl Fernbach and Rich Davis joined forces to create the The Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children. The two planned to “promote healthy, happy children and families in Vermont through the funding and support of community-based prevention strategies.” By 2014, however, they agreed that a critical piece was missing. Vermont families did not have enough access to affordable child care.
It wasn’t surprising. Child care workers were among the most poorly paid employees in the state, but families were already paying huge amounts to cover the fees, sometimes as much as 40% of their salary or more than they paid for a mortgage. If young parents couldn’t find affordable child care, they would not be able to work and employers would not have the workers they needed.
In response, Fernbach and Davis founded Let’s Grow Kids and assembled a group of lobbyists and organizers to carry out their mission: By 2025, all Vermont families would have access to high-quality affordable child care.
They recruited Aly Richards, a former top aide to Governor Shumlin, to lead the team. Richards knew this was one of those rare issues that affects everything. She and her team were determined to make it happen.
Bob and Christine Stiller of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters donated $20 million to Let’s Grow Kids. Then the grassroots organizing began. The first step, Richards said, was reaching out to Vermonters. “We talked to people. We listened to people.” Thousands of volunteers came forward to write op eds, sign petitions, and testify before lawmakers. Let’s Grow Kids funded television ads and digital marketing. Child care workers told their stories and lawmakers were asked about solutions to Vermont’s child care problems.
Let’s Grow Kids wanted to support those who supported the cause. The organization talked to political hopefuls asking how they would solve the child care dilemma, then posted responses online. They sought out candidates who believed in the importance of child care and understood that it could not become a reality without increased funding.
By November of 2022, 117 of their endorsed candidates won places in the legislature, but even with this backing and a Democratic supermajority, getting the bill passed was far from a given. In the end, there were compromises on both sides. Families who qualified would receive more in subsidies. The salaries and benefits of child care workers would be increased. Businesses and the state would share the burden. Businesses and families would share the benefits. Most importantly, children would receive the best quality child care during their most critical learning years.
From 2015 through 2023, Richards, through Let’s Grow Kids, fought for the child care bill. In the meantime, Richards had given birth to twin boys, “I was living the issue,” she says. Now Let’s Grow Kids has two more years to assist in the fulfillment of its mission.
The organization’s staff had already been working to get ready for an increase in child care centers. During this first phase of the new policy, Let’s Grow Kids will focus on providing support to current caregivers, sharing information with those who may want to open centers, and offering their expertise wherever it may be needed.
Since the passage of the bill, other states such as Massachusetts and New Jersey have reached out to Let’s Grow Kids. Richards tells them, “ You can do it! It’s worth the fight … but you have to get people involved and build a grassroots movement. Engage businesses. They’re well structured to educate people on why (child care) is needed.”
Vermont has become a role model. According to Roxanne Vought, executive director of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, “Nothing quite like this exists in any other state.”