Pandemic highlights long-time challenges in Wisconsin child care system - Paycheck

Pandemic highlights long-time challenges in Wisconsin child care system

Wisconsin’s child care system needs help. The covid-19 pandemic highlighted challenges that have been in the system for years. One Wisconsin county is stepping up to face the challenges head on.

   Green County Development Corporation and United Way of Green County are partnering to help local child care facilities tackle numerous challenges. Upon receiving grant funding, the initiative will address access issues, parental work force challenges and economic growth.

   “The situation was bad before the pandemic and is now dire for our local child care providers,” said Cara Carper, executive director of the Green County Development Corporation.

   According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Wisconsin child care professionals earn an average of $22,300 per year. A child care professional with an associate degree in early childhood education in Wisconsin expects to start a job at $10 per hour and rarely advances up the pay scale to more than $13 per hour, as compared to an average of $18.57 per hour for other workers in the state with associate degrees.

   A draft of the initiative in Green County is being used to write grant applications. The draft shows clear, significant connections between access to child care, parental employment shifts and overall economic growth. Businesses rely heavily on their employees, and those employees rely on child care providers in order to stay at work. When there are issues with child care providers, parents struggle to find alternative options or they miss work to care for their children.

   “Green County is considered a child care “desert,” meaning there are more than three children for each child care spot,” Carper said. “That doesn’t even include the younger school-aged children learning virtually at home.”

   Fifty-four percent of the state is considered to be a child care desert, according to Wisconsin’s Department of Children and Families. In rural areas of the state, 68 percent is considered a child care desert.

   Relying on public assistance also factors into the state’s child care issues. According to a national workforce study from the Center for the Study of Childcare Employment, 36 percent of early education workers in Wisconsin are part of families accessing at least one of the primary public assistance programs. That includes Earned Income Tax Credits, Medicaid and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Also according to the study, 94 percent of women involuntarily work part-time due to child care challenges.

   Green County is hoping to lower those statistics.

   Short-term goals of the initiative in Green County include supporting existing regulated child care providers, incentivizing existing non-regulated child care providers to become regulated, and incentivizing entrepreneurs to open regulated child care businesses. Long-term goals are ensuring there are enough child care providers in Green County to meet the need, ensuring the quality of providers in Green County, and providing clear signals to parents and employers about the quantity of quality child care in the county through increased ratings in the state’s YoungStar Rating program.

   As the two organizations work to secure funding for the initiative, they are enlisting the assistance of local child care provider Corrine Hendrickson, owner of Corrine’s Little Explorers Family Child Care Center in New Glarus and president of the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association. She said the teacher shortage and lack of good pay is a significant problem around the state.

   “There are closed rooms in many facilities because there aren’t enough teachers,” Hendrickson said. “They have to quit to find other, higher-paying jobs to survive.”

   Hendrickson said grants through the CARES Act from Wisconsin’s Department of Children and Families have helped keep some child care centers open for now. But the outlook is bleak, she said.

   “We can only look two to three months out with our businesses,” she said. “The grants have helped offset costs for me so I don’t have to raise my prices for parents, but we have no idea what will happen going forward.”

   Teresa Keehn, executive director of United Way of Green County, said 30 percent of households in Green County can’t afford child care. The public and the economy benefit from addressing this issue, as does the next generation, she said.

   “We are creating a pathway for additional providers and hope to move unregulated providers to being regulated in order to increase quality,” Keehn said during a recent virtual Green County Leadership Breakfast on the topic. “We want to provide professional development training, better home environments for children and help get families out of poverty.”

   Keehn called the public to action at the virtual breakfast. Some of the ways everyone can help include finding community-minded folks who would make good child care providers and who would be willing to own a child care business then asking them to step up; advocating for the industry and future generations to help others see the benefits to the workforce and the public; and making donations to child care facilities of items they need.

   Hendrickson said child care is the backbone of the American economy because without child care providers, people wouldn’t be able to work. Educating kids when their brains are developing the most requires highly-qualified professionals, she said.

   “We are supporting not only today’s workers but also the next generation of workers,” she said.

Mary Hookham

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