Reputable (and affordable) childcare is scarce. It is apparently so scarce, according to the Center for American Progress (CAP), 54% of people in Wisconsin live in a child care desert. The national average is 51%. Rural areas are particularly hard hit. Some 68% of rural Wisconsin families live in areas without enough licensed child care providers. It was not surprising to me that childcare was a hot topic last week in the state capitol, as schools reopened and parents returned to work from their summer vacations. Parents as well as child care providers are scrambling to figure out what can be done to serve Wisconsin families.
Many providers have been lobbying legislators about the Child Care Counts program. The Child Care Counts: Stabilization Payment Program was a nine-month payment program scheduled to run from May 2023 through January 2024. Once approved for payments, eligible providers may continue to receive ongoing monthly payments, providing the financial stability they need to stay open, to recruit and retain qualified staff, and to continue providing high-quality care for children. What happens in January of 2024—the funding disappears and some child care centers will be forced to close. The program has allowed providers to make long-awaited updates to their facilities, increase wages and bonuses, hire additional staff and prevent substantial rate increases for families. Child Care Counts has distributed more than $652 million in federal pandemic relief funds directly to 5,080 Wisconsin child care providers since its inception in 2020 as of September, according to DCF.
As a legislator, this question of what to do has been a priority, well before Child Care Counts. I was one of a handful of legislators who worked with former Republican Senator Luther Olsen on legislation that would fully fund K4 and become more flexible with the age limits for kindergarten. Under current law, a child is only eligible to start four-year-old kindergarten if the child is four years old by September 1st of the upcoming school year. The Olsen Plan proposed to change current law to allow children who will be turning four by either September 1 or December 31st to also be eligible to enroll and attend four-year-old kindergarten at the beginning of that school year. It would also allow children to be admitted after January 1st of the school year if the child would be four years old on January 1st or by June 30th of the school year.
This sounded like music to my ears; not only would it provide a more viable pathway for early childhood educators to obtain advanced degrees and licensure in the education field, it would alleviate the burden of expensive childcare for families who might otherwise not have options. The thought was that childcare providers could partner with local school districts to offer early childhood services (this has been happening successfully in Milwaukee Public Schools for many years). During the public hearings back in 2019, childcare providers were vehemently against joining forces with public schools or lowering the age for kindergarten.
With the Child Care Counts funding scheduled to sunset in January 2024, I am certain a partnership looks quite attractive today. If I were a provider, I would seek a path of viability at all cost. The current Republican bill offerings only offer temporary solutions to much larger problems. One bill would create a new category of licensed centers — “large family child care centers” — which would allow them to start caring for larger groups of children, depending on the children’s ages and number of employees. Another would allow 16-year-olds to take on more roles in child care centers. None of those solutions make sense as they would overburden an already fickle workforce by doubling the daycare student to teacher ratio and depending on high school students. I think not.
In my opinion, “partnership or perish” is where we are on this issue. While some providers can remain independent and survive, there are a vast majority that cannot and need to find a school—public or private to lean on and forge new relationships.