Wisconsin Child Care Providers Continue to Advocated for Increased Public Support

A year following the state Legislature’s budget committee’s rejection of calls for a significant financial injection to support Wisconsin’s child care industry, providers are facing survival challenges, and child care resources remain depleted.

Ruth Schmidt, executive director, Wisconsin Early Childhood Association. (WECA)

“Child care programs are grappling with staffing shortages, continued classroom closures, and escalating rates for parents,” said Ruth Schmidt, executive director of the Wisconsin Early Childhood  Association (WECA).

According to Schmidt, none of these issues have shown improvement over the past year. She stated in an interview, “I would say it has worsened slightly”—and she argues that without substantial support for child care in the state budget, the situation will deteriorate further.

On Monday, stakeholders from the child care sector, parents, and advocates gathered statewide to draw attention to the persistent challenges facing child care providers and families. These events were part of the national campaign “A Day Without Child Care,” aimed at garnering support for expanding access to affordable child care for working families.

During one of these events in New Glarus, speakers highlighted the role of early childhood education in nurturing children’s cognitive and social-emotional development, essential for their future academic success.

“Children who receive high-quality early care and educational opportunities tend to perform better in school, graduate at higher rates, have higher lifetime earnings, engage less in criminal activities, require fewer special education services, and thrive under the care of supportive, consistent adults,” said Jeff Pertl, deputy secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families (DCF).

Sarah Kazell, a child care worker and advocate, emphasized that early education is a public good deserving of public investment, similar to K-12 education.

“This is the harsh reality of underinvestment in early education. Workers like me are paid poverty wages, effectively subsidizing child care costs for middle-class families. It’s an exploitative system where caregivers are undervalued,” Kazell remarked.

Kazell urged for the acknowledgment and fair compensation of child care workers as essential professionals providing a crucial public service to their communities. She also denounced the trend of child care services increasingly catering exclusively to affluent families, labeling it as unjust.

The New Glarus event was coordinated by Corrine Hendrickson and Brooke Legler, owners of child care centers in the area, who established the advocacy group Wisconsin Early Childhood Action Needed (WECAN) to advocate for providers and families’ interests.

They reminded attendees that 2024 is an election year and distributed resources to facilitate contacting legislators to advocate for robust state support for child care.

A vital workforce component

Advocates stressed that child care services play a pivotal role in enabling more individuals to enter the workforce. State Representative Mike Bare (D-Verona) highlighted the concerns of New Glarus’ major employers regarding housing availability for workers and child care as critical aspects influencing employee recruitment and retention.

Wisconsin’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, Jill Underly, echoed similar sentiments, pointing out that the lack of accessible and affordable child care poses a significant obstacle for teachers planning to return to work after having children.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated long-standing challenges faced by child care providers. Maintaining affordable fees for families restricted providers from raising wages, making it challenging to attract and retain workers, according to advocates.

The count of regulated child care providers in Wisconsin has plummeted over the past decade, with the number decreasing by approximately 25% from 2014 to February 2020. Licensed family care providers and certified family providers also experienced notable declines during this period, affecting rural populations significantly.

Providers cope with challenges, strain persists

With the pandemic exacerbating the already strained situation, child care providers faced additional hardships due to staff shortages caused by illness, parental decisions to work from home, or reduce work hours due to child care constraints.

Despite the challenges, state and federal governments stepped in with increased support for providers during the pandemic, such as the Child Care Counts program funded by the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) at $20 million per month.

Although the number of providers has remained relatively stable, providers’ actual capacity may be lower due to staffing issues. Efforts to extend the Child Care Counts program faced hurdles in the Legislature, leading to a cutback in funding, impacting child care services in the state.

The New Glarus rally served as a platform for advocates to criticize lawmakers for neglecting proposals for sustaining child care and underscored the importance of future federal initiatives, like the proposed $16 billion child care stabilization program.

Moving forward, advocates are gearing up for the 2025-27 budget discussions, ensuring child care remains a key focus for policymakers to secure a sustainable future for the sector.

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