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An article written by Ruth Schmidt, Executive Director for the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association for the League of Municipalities magazine highlights the need for child care in Wisconsin. Employers across the state tell child care groups they are unable to recruit quality talent for their businesses because child care services are not available. Recruiters highlight stories of positions being offered to needed workers who turn jobs down because they will not move to the area due to the lack of child care options. When a child care center closes its doors because it can no longer afford to stay open the already over-saturated need for child care providers gets worse overnight. Child care directors lose teachers because they cannot compete with other job opportunities that pay better and provide benefits. Wisconsin had a child care shortage and multiple areas which completely lacked providers prior to Covid-19, and the situation is getting worse. School districts and communities have been working to address the need but highlight that more needs to be done.
Child Care Deserts
According to the Center for American Progress a child care desert is defined as an area that either has no child care providers, or has so few that there are more than three children for every available slot. According to a report by the U.S. Census Bureau, one-third of children under age 5 are regularly in care with someone who is not a relative. Meaning, in places where there are more than three children for every child care slot, there are child care waiting lists, unlicensed child care arrangements, or direct effects on parents’ employment decisions. A report published by the Center for American Progress in 2017 showed:
- More than half of the population across the 22 states studied—51 percent—live in neighborhoods classified as child care deserts.
- Fifty-eight percent of rural tracts qualify as child care deserts, while only 44 percent of suburban neighborhoods fit the definition. Urban areas where the median family income is below average also have high rates of child care deserts.
- Hispanic/Latino and American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) communities are disproportionately represented in child care deserts, with roughly 60 percent of their combined populations living in areas with a low supply of child care. More than 75 percent of the rural AIAN population lives in a child care desert.
- Child care deserts have, on average, maternal labor force participation rates 3 percentage points lower than communities where there is adequate child care supply. In communities where median family incomes are below the national average, this maternal employment gap is even wider.
In Wisconsin, DCF reports that 54% of Wisconsin’s population lives within a child care desert. (Map). The DCF website says, “There is no better example of how stark the picture is than Western Wisconsin, where over 50% of zip codes are classified as child care deserts.”
Wisconsin schools can establish a separate fund for community service activities, and they can establish and use Fund 80 for those activities in their budget process. Fund 80 is the designation for the community service fund. The fund is used for activities that are not K-12 educational programs, but they serve the community. The funds may be used for activities such as adult education, community recreation programs, elderly food service, non-special education preschool or day care services. School districts can adopt a separate tax levy for this fund, which is outside revenue limits. Districts have the authority to levy and charge fees for these programs and may receive payments from other units of government. Some school districts are using these monies to establish school district child care services to help address the needs of the community.
Amery School District
The Wheeler Report talked with Nina Hutton, the Director of Clubhouse Childcare Center in the School District of Amery. Hutton said the Amery School District had seen declining enrollment in the district over numerous years and decided to do a survey of the community. They found the lack of access to child care services was causing families to leave the area either through moving or through finding child care in other communities eventually leading to families using open enrollment to those districts. The area was a child care desert. Hutton said the school district decided to use their Fund 80 balance for one-time improvement projects like remodeling classrooms, playgrounds, and hiring the director to implement the child care program. Hutton explained that the child care program currently has a one-year waiting list.
The school district does all day 4-year old kindergarten, so the center provides preschool care as well as before school and after school care for school aged children. Child care center employees are employees of the school district, yet only the center director receives full benefits. The remaining staff receive pay, WRS retirement, paid holidays and PLT time. The center has approximately 20 staff and an additional 10 high school students who help. The center is funded through private-pay tuition from parents and runs year-round except for school holidays and a week during the summer. The center opens at 6 am and closes at 6 pm. The center provides breakfast, lunch and snacks for students enrolled.
Hutton said the benefits to the child care center being located at the school are numerous. Hutton explained parents appreciate being able to drop off all children at one location at one time, reducing the number of stops in the morning for families. Hutton said the child care center students have a structured day including a full curriculum and any learning ability issues can be quickly identified since the center staff have an excellent collegial relationship with the staff at the schools. Hutton said the older students can work at the center, and the elementary school students are able to come to the child care center classrooms to read and interact with the younger children. Hutton said the district has an easier transition to 4K since the students are already familiar with the school and the staff.
When asked about challenges facing the center, Hutton said they center has a waiting list and they have no one to refer families to who are waiting. Hutton went on to explain that while the location is wonderful for families, the school really isn’t designed for the smaller children and they don’t have the funds to do additional remodeling for their needs, and the center needs more room. Hutton said the district is aware the center needs more room and they are currently looking into what their options are. Hutton said that while the center is funded by private-pay funds they work hard to charge tuition that only covers the cost of the program and is not about making money. Hutton said the center purchases their own snacks in bulk to save money. Hutton said they are looking at having families pay for the meals they receive at daycare, like school aid students do, currently the meals are included in the tuition. Parents will have the option to send home lunches if they choose. Hutton emphasized that it is unfortunate that child care teachers are not thought of as ‘real” teachers and are not given the pay they need, making it difficult to retain teachers.
Jackson County Task Force
Another child care desert area is Jackson County. The Wheeler Report talked with Marianne Torkelson, the VP of Business Development and Training for the Co-op Credit Union in Black River Falls. Torkelson tells the story of how the Co-op Credit Union President/CEO and the General Manager/CEO of the Jackson Electric Cooperative were talking in the credit union lobby in the fall of 2017 about how the community was losing workers and workers were missing work because of the lack of child care. That led to the creation of a task force which now consists of business community members, school district representation, a representative from DCF, and public health officials in Jackson County.
The task force started with a community survey of parents in Jackson County. Torkelson said the survey showed:
- 43% of parents felt their current child care met their needs.
- Over 68% said they are unable to do overtime at work because of child care issues.
- Over 68% said they have been absent from work because of child care issues.
- 55% said they have been late to work because of child care issues.
- 50% said they are unable to work to their full capacity while at work due to stress and concerns about child care.
- Over 48% are using friends and family for child care.
- 85% said they are spending time at work making alternative child care arrangements.
- Over 56% have to leave work when their child is sick.
- 55% use more than one provider, many use 3 or more, resulting in little consistency for children.
In addition to learning about the large demand for quality child care, Jackson County learned that child care programs have a hard time finding consistent help due to the “bad pay and lack of benefits.” Teachers leave centers quickly and centers struggle to fill positions according to Torkelson. She went on to add that center directors are unable to do their jobs and keep up with administrative work because they are continually in the classrooms filing in for teachers.
When the task force completed the survey from the parents, they then turned to employers and did a survey. The employer surveys showed similar results and the employers know there is a problem with lack of access to child care. Companies say they are unable to grow their businesses because of the lack of child care for workers. Jackson County estimates it is losing more than $2.5 million a year in lost productivity, or about $209,000 a month, due to lack of child care.
The task force is creating a non-profit organization which has applied for a Preschool Development Grant (PDG) which they plan to use to focus on recruitment and support of providers. The group hopes to provide “scholarships” to both family and group providers to help cover the costs associated with the required teaching certifications and regulatory requirements. Through a collaboration with WECA, the group is developing a shared service network which will help with education requirements, professional development, regulatory issues such as YoungStar and Wisconsin Shares rules, human resources, monitoring children’s growth and development, and provide referrals. The group hopes to make child care positions more desirable knowing that this will directly impact the future of their communities. Torkelson said the group is working to improve child care availability in the county since there is a 4-5 year waiting list right now.
Torkelson offered advice to other communities dealing with shortages and deserts, “Get your local groups together, figure out what you need, and bring people together to address the issue. You can’t wait for others to fix it.” Torkelson emphasized that Jackson County has people in the community willing to address this task to help the community going forward.
A WECA report published in 2016 highlighted the needs of the Wisconsin child care workforce. The survey data for the report was collected by the Survey Center at UW-Madison and the UW-Madison research center COWS. The report highlights the following:
Child Care Centers
- 98% of teachers at child care centers are women
- 68% of the staff at child care centers are teachers
- 32% of the staff at child care centers are assistant teachers
- Median starting wage for teachers is $10
- Median starting wage for assistant teachers is $8.50
- 17% of teaching staff are eligible for employer-provided health insurance
- 30% of teaching staff have some sort of retirement benefit
- There is a 30% annual turnover rate of teachers
- There is a 45% annual turnover rate of assistant teachers
- 99% are women
- Works 55 hours per week and 51 weeks per year (Median Family Provider)
- Works for approximately $7.50 per hour (Median Family Provider)
- Rely on another source of income; 67% rely on a spouse’s income
- 46% receive health care through their spouse, 24% purchase health insurance, 20% rely on public programs, 8% have no insurance.
- 22% are saving for retirement
The recent Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation report Wisconsin Tomorrow – An Economy for All highlighted the need for additional child care, The report states, “Between March 1st and May 1st of 2020, Wisconsin saw 54 percent of its large licensed group centers close compared to only 18 percent of licensed family providers. In addition, the proportion of families using the Wisconsin Child Care Subsidy Program increased by almost 20 percent for this same period. During the pandemic, families have gravitated toward smaller ECE settings for their children while also needing increased financial support to utilize this care.” The report highlights statistics about Wisconsin Shares from DCF saying, “As of March 1, 3,442 families were served by the program, a number that rose to 4,021 by May 1, an increase of 16.8 percent. The number of children served by the program jumped from 6,208 to 7,462 – up 20.2 percent.” The report highlights that teachers earn, on average, $10 per hour and do not receive benefits. DCF has estimated that 25% of child care programs could close because of the pandemic, which could cause child care deserts to worsen and create new desert areas in the state.