Parents and child care workers discuss the importance of quality, affordable child care at A Day Without Child Care on Monday at The Growing Tree child care center in New Glarus. (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)
As families and child care providers wait to see whether the state budget will include money to support Wisconsin’s struggling child care network, teachers, advocates and lawmakers gathered Monday to highlight the critical role child care plays for workers and employers scrambling to fill job openings.
“Child care professionals really are the workforce behind the workforce,” said Olivia Otte, executive director of the Green County Development Corp., addressing a room full of child care workers and parents at a New Glarus child care center.
For advocates the issue is especially important this year. Child care providers are counting on $340 million in the 2023-25 state budget that they say would provide continued support for higher child care wages while averting tuition hikes for families.
The money would take the place of pandemic relief aid that runs out in early 2023. Unlike more than 500 items that were removed from Gov. Tony Evers’ proposed budget, the $340 million child care provision was left alone when the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee began voting on the spending plan at the beginning of May.
That doesn’t commit the committee to the amount or the proposal. Whether and how the lawmakers will fund it awaits later action.
To round up support for seeing the provision all the way through the budget process, advocates held events across the state Monday as part of A Day Without Child Care — a national campaign to underscore the importance of child care by curtailing child care programs for a day. In Wisconsin, the campaign included a gathering organized by providers and parents in New Glarus as well as news conferences in Milwaukee, Madison and Eau Claire.
“Our daily lives are not possible without the child care workers, educators and professionals that ensure our children are in a setting that promotes cognitive and social development,” said Rep. Kalan Haywood (D-Milwaukee) at the YMCA Early Childcare Education Center in Milwaukee. “Investing in child care is investing in working families, and working families are the foundation of our economy.”
At an Eau Claire child care center, Rep. Jodi Emerson described drastic consequences without child care for a cross-section of the workforce.
“If child care centers are not open, teachers can’t get to work and schools would shut down,” Emerson said. Medical professionals couldn’t get to work and hospitals and clinics would need to lock their doors.” Restaurants, cafes and grocery stores would all be in jeopardy, she added. “It is time our society realizes what a critical part of our economy child care centers are and starts treating them that way.”
In New Glarus, about three dozen parents, child care workers and a few toddlers crowded into a classroom set aside for a news conference at The Growing Tree, a group center that currently provides care for about 50 children.
“We have people making policies who do not understand child development, who do not understand the business of child care,” said Brooke Skidmore, founder and co-owner of The Growing Tree. “Yet they are making decisions without consulting us.”
Skidmore and Corrine Hendrickson, who operates a home-centered child care center in New Glarus, are also co-founders of Wisconsin Early Childhood Action Needed (WECAN), an advocacy group of providers, parents and other supporters of stronger support for the field.
Hendrickson reviewed a recent survey that WECAN conducted of child care providers in the state. Without the extended support being sought in the new budget, providers have said they would have to raise tuition and more than 10% said they expected they would have to shut down.
“We need all of your voices,” Hendrickson said. “Child care affects everyone.”
Hendrickson read from a letter written in March by a local bank executive in support of an initiative to help support Green County child care providers. Local employers among the bank’s clientele have had trouble hiring workers, wrote Ronald J. Schaaf, the Bank of New Glarus president.
“The lack of reliable childcare only amplifies this problem,” Schaaf wrote. His bank’s employees have been among those unable to find child care, he reported, and one quit “because it was more cost efficient for her to stay home.”
Will Oemichen, a Green County Board member and also a legislative aide to State Rep. Mike Bare (D-Verona), told the gathering, “The No. 1 thing I hear about when I talk [to constituents] just about anything in Green County is the need for child care.”
More than babysitting
Parents and child care workers alike emphasized that child care involves much more than casual babysitting — something that many people don’t recognize, said Wanda Legler, Skidmore’s mother, who has worked in child care and education since the 1970s.
“We’re ‘babysitters’ and we’ve never been valued,” Legler said. “I don’t know how to change that.”
Hendrickson said quality child care programs and well-trained employees can make a difference in the crucial early years as a child’s brain develops. Those first years of life should be considered just as important as the state constitution’s guarantee of a free public education for school-age children, she believes.
Beth Borchardt has had her children cared for at The Growing Tree for the last seven years and said she has learned from her children’s care workers.
“They’ve helped me be a better parent,” Borchardt said. “They’ve taught me about child development.”
She also values the social and emotional skills that her children have gained by being with other kids from an early age — “learning how to interact with other people, learning how to express their feelings.”
Borchardt addressed the child care workers in the room: “You are the ones that shape the next generation.”
Skidmore said the private market alone cannot supply enough high-quality child care. It is “a public good” that should be funded as such, she said.
And she lamented “how hard it is to have teachers that you can’t pay what they deserve” because families who need child care couldn’t afford the tuition they would have to pay to support those wages.
In conversations about that gap, lawmakers have told her that “it will correct itself,” Skidmore said. “This isn’t going to correct itself without the support of government.”
Sarah Kazell, an advocate for agencies that provide child care information and referral services, said she is hopeful that providers and parents are making headway, however.
“Public policy is starting to move in the right direction,” Kazell told the New Glarus gathering. “And that’s due to actions like you all are doing here.”
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