by Erik Gunn, Wisconsin Examiner
September 7, 2023
Six bills that Republicans have released pertaining to the state’s struggling child care services got their first public hearing Wednesday, and among most of the care providers who testified, the reaction ranged from gentle skepticism to sweeping condemnation.
The author of five of the bills, Rep. Joy Goeben (R-Hobart) — a former child care provider whose center closed 14 years ago — said she developed them after visiting with child care providers and workers in her district along with child care resource and referral operators.
“We have already put a great amount of money into child care and centers are still closing,” Goeben said, introducing the bills at Wednesday’s hearing. “We need to identify the root causes and work for sustainable changes that guarantee long-term differences. We must have the courage to change a system that isn’t working.”
Ragen Shapiro, legislative advisor for the Department of Children and Families (DCF), said the root cause of the current crisis goes back decades.
“When this system or this business model was first developed, there was a lot of information we didn’t know, there was a lot of research we didn’t have,” Shapiro said. “We know a lot more now” — about child development and about the importance of smaller ratios of children to child care workers.
“The problem of high tuition prices, low wages and decreasing program supply has grown in severity and really was pushed to crisis levels because of the pandemic, which really laid bare the vulnerabilities and limitations of our system,” Shapiro said.
Inadequate wages lead workers to leave the profession, “and we cannot rely on parent tuition alone to sustain competitive wages for this workforce — parents cannot afford to pay more,” she added. “A state investment is needed for the child care providers in order to pay their staff competitive wages.”
That sort of support was provided by Child Care Counts, the $20-million-a-month stabilization program that helped support providers over the last three years amid the uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic. The funds were cut in half starting in June and will disappear entirely by early 2024.
Republicans in the Legislature removed a state-funded, $340 million extension of the federally funded program from Gov. Tony Evers’ proposed 2023-25 budget. Evers now wants the Legislature to restore that money as part of a special session he has called for later this month.
Nothing like that support is included in any of the six bills that make up the GOP package.
The hearing on five of those bills was held by the Assembly Children and Families Committee Wednesday: AB-388 would create a $15 million revolving loan fund for child care center operators to finance renovations to their properties.
The same provision was included in the 2023-25 budget that passed with only Republican votes. When he signed the budget July 5, Gov. Tony Evers used his partial veto power to convert the loan fund into a grant program; the new bill would undo that change. AB-389 would create a new category of large family child care centers, caring for up to 12 children. Currently the state recognizes family child care centers, with up to eight children, and group centers, with nine or more. AB-390 would lower the minimum age for an assistant child care teacher or group leader for school-age children to 16 from the current 17. Currently the state allows those entry-level child care workers to provide sole supervision only at certain times of the day and for no more than two hours. The bill would remove those restrictions.
Goeben introduced an amendment to the bill this week specifying that another child care teacher must be on the premises when the younger teen is in that sole supervision role. AB-391 would increase the maximum number of children per child care worker and the maximum number of children per age in group child care centers. It also would allow group centers to change their ratios of workers to children to match the average teacher-pupil ratio in the local school district. AB-392 would change the rules for child care providers with a county certification rather than a state license. (Either a license or certification is required to take care of children from low-income families whose child care is subsidized by the Wisconsin Shares program.)
Currently a certified provider can care for no more than three children who are not related to the provider, and no more than six children altogether. The bill allows certified providers to care for up to six children regardless of whether any are related to the operator.
A sixth bill, AB-387, would enable parents to set aside up to $10,000 a year to pay for child care costs. The funds would not be subject to Wisconsin’s income tax. There was no opposition testimony to that bill at a one-hour Assembly Ways and Means Committee hearing earlier Wednesday, and no organizations have registered opposition with the Wisconsin Ethics Commission.
The Children and Families hearing, however, stretched on for four hours, and there, the strongest support for the other five bills came from their authors. Three representatives of regional child care referral agencies offered measured endorsement of some items in the legislation while also expressing caution about others. But most other providers and advocates said that the legislation fundamentally missed the mark.
Among the criticisms witnesses made was of the proposal to lower the age of entry-level child care workers to 16. Goeben said that allowing that change would make Wisconsin’s existing child care apprenticeship program more attractive to child care providers who would want to participate, because the apprentices could then be counted as part of the staff for determining the ratios of children to workers.
But as many as 60% of child care workers are reporting “just feeling incredible burnout,” said Rep. Jill Billings (D-La Crosse).
“Throwing 16-year-olds into this situation that is filled with professionals who are educated at what they’re doing, who have learned how to handle difficult situations, and still are feeling that burnout — I don’t think that’s our child care crisis answer,” she said.
Candy Hall, executive director of a five-county child care resource and referral agency in Kimberly as well as the owner of a Fond du Lac child care center, said some of the 33 providers she contacted in the last week were open to increasing ratios, potentially adding capacity for 215 children.
Others were not, she added, and she noted that space limitations would prevent some providers from adding more children even with a ratio increase. “In the end, they feel like it would be an individual business estate decision if ratios were changed, and each program is different,” Hall said.
But Renae Henning, administrator of Community Care Preschool and Child Care in Beaver Dam, testified that existing ratios meet the standards of accreditation bodies. They “have been chosen based on developmentally appropriate practice,” she said.
While Goeben had noted earlier that the higher ratios would be voluntary, “I don’t think that’s where we want to be,” Henning added. “Don’t we all want to be looked at as leaders in our country? So let’s take a look at the developmentally appropriate practice that tells us what good ratios are.”
Facing the loss of $3,000 to $4,000 a month when Child Care Counts money ends, Henning said she has raised tuition 12% this month and plans another 12% increase in February. “I am wondering what the next year is going to bring me. We’ve been around for 50 years as a nonprofit in our community, and I hope and pray that we’ll be able to continue that.”
Even as they testified against the bills Wednesday, some providers sought to temper their opposition. Others spoke bluntly, however.
Corrine Hendrickson, a New Glarus family child care provider and cofounder of a provider advocacy group, disputed claims that Wisconsin’s required ratios were lower than those of surrounding states.
“These bills should be thrown out and not even given the dignity of a response,” Hendrickson said. “Because these bills will cause harm. These ratios and rules and regulations exist so children are not harmed and are safe.”
Brooke Skidmore, the operator of a New Glarus group child care center, lit into lawmakers for ignoring weeks of testimony during budget listening sessions in the spring from providers and others about the need for more substantial child care funding.
Lawmakers were given data that Child Care Counts “did work, it stabilized the industry that had been declining for decades,” Skidmore said. “And you were given the research that it did work at improving the wages. For us, it went from $10.66 an hour to now we’re at $13 — and that’s still pathetic. We pay people to care for our dogs more than our children in the state of Wisconsin.”
Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: email@example.com. Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.