BRODHEAD — While the Wisconsin legislature is still technically in Governor Tony Evers’ special session — the gavel has not been brought down to adjourn — those in the childcare world are continuing to operate despite government funds likely to disappear soon.
The money for Child Care Counts is set to run out in January 2024.
A newly-opened day care center in Brodhead has challenges of its own, but is making the best of its opportunity after a long wait. An idea conceived in 2020 has been a long process, but with a building in place, The Nurturing Tree Early Learning Academy was finally able to open on Aug. 31.
On Monday, Sept. 25, Gov. Evers visited the site, along with local elected officials — State Sen. Mark Spreitzer (15th District) and Rep. Clinton Anderson (45th Assembly). The move comes as the state is poised to discontinue legislative funding to boost daycare pay, a move that has only started to make a dent in the daycare shortage crisis in the state.
“This is beautiful, this is great,” Evers said of the Brodhead facility.
Fulfilling a need
Chelsea Andrews and Cori Clark, both prior in-home child care providers, met at a local park several years ago. Andrews was born and raised in Brodhead, while Clark has called it home for the past 16 years. Soon after meeting, they began brainstorming on bringing a larger day-care center to Brodhead. In doing so, they also are helping to fill a growing need statewide for affordable daycare.
Their location, 807 16th Street, is across the street from Piggly Wiggly and used to be a car-detailing shop. On the day the offer to purchase the building was accepted, Andrews also received word she was accepted for a major grant via the Bank of Brodhead, which aided the daycare’s process to open its doors, turning the idea to reality.
“They were able to nominate two businesses for this one grant, and Adam, my bank officer said, ‘You have to get this done tonight,’” Andrews said. “A grant? No problem. Then I didn’t hear anything and thought that I must have lost, and then he told me I won — and that was the same day of the accepted offer on this building. I was like, ‘OK God, I see what you’re doing.’”
They had to uninstall the garage door in place of a permanent wall, upgrade the bathroom to meet ADA guidelines, and laid some flooring. However, the rustic wood wall paneling met the aesthetic the pair were going for: Outdoor adventures.
“We just saw the need that the kids need to be outside. That’s kind of our philosophy,” Clark said.
Running two daycare operations
Andrews still runs in-home childcare for children 0-3, while Clark is the main person in charge at The Nurturing Tree, which cares for children 3- to 12-years old and has 14 of its 32 slots filled after just three weeks of being open. With the shortage of such centers locally and across Wisconsin, it is likely to be filled in short order.
Indoors, there are a plethora of options for the kids to do hands-on learning. However, outdoors is where the kids thrive.
“These kids are really itching to be outside,” Clark said, saying that the early morning time is spent inside as required, but the kids end up spending around 2-3 hours outside during the middle of the day; learning while they play.
“And nobody is forced to do something they don’t want to,” Andrews said.
Kids can choose from the dozens of activities and setups available at the center.
The fenced-in area outdoors has a mud kitchen, water table, sand box, rock garden and amphitheater. The husbands used large tree branches to create a teepee. The City of Brodhead donated another four large cuts from a fallen city park tree that the center put into a square for children to sit or run around on to improve balance and coordination. A portion of the asphalt parking lot was left inside the fence to be used for bikes, scooters and sidewalk chalk.
During winter months, the center can pile snow from the parking lot on the asphalt slab to create a small hill for sledding. The children also could go for walks to the Sugar River Trail that is less than a mile away.
Also in the yard is a small wood-shop table, where the kids — under supervision — can use real hammers and nails to get pieces of wood stuck together. In all, the center’s philosophy of learning is more of a throwback style — the children learn while they play, rather than, say, holding hands while in the safe confines of a padded floor; or in a ball pit.
“We just really bonded over the fact that kids need to be out in nature and jumping off logs, and playing in the sand, making mud creations and playing with water,” Andrews said. “It’s just so fun watching the kids come out here and get dirty and have fun. We let the parents know right away this is how it is going to be — and the kids, they love it. They love coming out here barefoot and going home sandy and muddy.”
Funding questions remain
Andrews and Clark were also able to hire help immediately — especially given the higher wages they were offering compared to other daycare facilities. They employ several workers with decades of combined experience from Illinois, and those workers are now looking into the possibility of moving closer to Brodhead.
“We had lots of interviews. It was important to us that we have high-quality staff. What we do is a little bit different here, and we wanted to find the right fit,” Andrews said.
Many other facilities raised the wages for their workers thanks to funds from Child Care Counts. But with that funding set to end, the options are drab — rates for care could rise, workers might have to take pay cuts, or both. There is the potential that workers could look elsewhere — perhaps into a different line of work altogether — just to make ends meet. Families could pull their kids from daycare because of high costs, which could also mean a parent staying home and leaving their own job, continuing the domino effect.
Republican leaders in the state legislature have drug their feet on the issue of child care in the state budget. While Wisconsin’s budget surplus is nearly $7 billion, GOP leaders haven’t come up with a plan to continue the Child Care Counts program at the state level, which would cost about $350 million and is vastly popular across the state and its political divide. Instead of continuing the funding, though, Republicans offered up ideas of expanding the number of children a facility can hold, lowering the age of assistant childcare workers, and other nominal changes.
According to an October 2022 survey of Wisconsin providers by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, over 27% of providers surveyed said they would have closed without the federal funding, while over 60% reported they will increase tuition when the program ends.
A new study from Forward Analytics, “Priced Out: The Steep Cost of Childcare in Wisconsin,” shows childcare costs average between 18 and 36% of family income. Forward Analytics is a research division of the Wisconsin Counties Association. According to the study, Wisconsinites pay an average cost of $13,572 for childcare — which is more than the $10,766 tuition at UW-Madison. Childcare workers’ median wage in 2022 was $26,333 in the state as well, the 13th lowest among 546 occupations.
In 2010, Wisconsin also had 20,580 childcare workers, but by 2021, that number had dropped by more than 26% to 15,210.
“Wisconsin’s severe worker shortage has pushed up wages in all occupations at the low end of the pay scale,” said Forward Analytics Deputy Director Kevin Dospoy. “Many of these occupations now pay significantly more than childcare workers, making them more attractive to workers in this industry.”
In his 2023-25 biennial budget proposal, Gov. Evers proposed making the Child Care Counts Program permanent — with a more than $340 million investment.
“The top issue that constituents contacted me about over the past six months was addressing our state’s child care crisis by extending the successful Child Care Counts program,” Sen. Spreitzer said back in June when Republicans voted against the Governor’s budget.
After the June budget vote, Rep. Anderson agreed with Spreitzer.
“This budget is a missed opportunity to serve Wisconsin families while strengthening the Wisconsin workforce,” Rep. Anderson said. “By not funding Child Care Counts and failing to expand Medicaid, Republicans turned their back on working families and failed to address a critical worker shortage. Republicans chose to cut taxes for the wealthiest eleven Wisconsinites while the working class got peanuts. I cannot compromise when Wisconsin working families and businesses are on the line.”
In August, Evers called for the legislature to return for a special session to take up the issue of childcare. Prior to the special session, Evers asked all 132 legislators to complete a survey by Sept. 14. But by the morning of Sept. 20, none of the 86 Republican gave a response. The questions in the survey were:
● Do you agree that one of the greatest issues facing Wisconsin is our state’s ability to find, recruit, and retain workers to join our workforce?
● Do you agree that losing hundreds or even thousands of Wisconsin’s child care providers and slots statewide will force workers to leave our state’s workforce?
● Do you support creating a 12-week paid family leave policy in Wisconsin that allows smaller employers with fewer than 50 employees the ability to opt in?
● Do you agree that higher education, including the University of Wisconsin System and Wisconsin Technical College System institutions, are critical to educating, training, retaining, and recruiting Wisconsin’s workforce?
U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin has joined 100 co-sponsors with a bill at the national level to extend the program federally. It is estimated that more than 85,000 childing in Wisconsin alone are expected to lose their childcare, with about 5,000 child care jobs to be lost without the funding. In all, it could costs Wisconsin parents about $232 million as a result of leaving the workforce to care for children at home.
“Across the country, affordable child care is out of reach for too many families, stopping parents from getting back to work, hurting our economy, and preventing kids from getting the strong start they deserve,” said Senator Baldwin.
Child Care Counts brought in $24 billion across the country in the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), keeping about 220,000 child care providers afloat, and keeping about 10 million slots for child care open. The Child Care Stabilization Act would prevent a potential crisis when funding expires at the end of the month by providing $16 billion in mandatory funding each year for the next five years to continue the successful Child Care Stabilization Grant program, which ARPA created, Baldwin’s office said.
“We’re working hard on it, still. I’ve been to childcare centers all across the state, and they are reaching out to their legislators,” Evers said.