Child care in rural Wisconsin: Challenges, a crossroads and hopeful opportunities

by Ruth Schmidt
Executive Director, Wisconsin Early Childhood Association

At Wisconsin Early Childhood Association (WECA), we know child care access and affordability are critical for Wisconsin’s workforce productivity and growth, particularly in rural Wisconsin. Employers and economic leaders are becoming more vocal about child care as the economic ripple effect of the broken private business model and continued lack of resources becomes more and more apparent.

Over the past year, WECA has hosted employer-legislator forums across Wisconsin and has heard countless stories of child care access and affordability challenges. Our business engagement director, Kimber Liedl, helps facilitate these important conversations with economic leaders and policymakers in collaboration with key partner organizations representing economic development and health care. These forums and the stories shared continue to illustrate that child care is really a key part of our state’s economic infrastructure.

For example, one business reported having seven employees call in and miss work in one day—and more than half of them cited a lack of child care as the reason.

A hairstylist from Grant County shared that many people who sit in her chair—particularly women—say they are not only leaving their jobs but leaving the workforce entirely, not because of a desire to stay home but rather because of economic or logistical necessity that stems from child care challenges.

We also heard from a manufacturer offering 12 different shifts—a “come in –and –work –when –you –can” strategy—to try to keep operations afloat. It’s a distinctly unique attempt at flexibility, not out of desire but rather out of urgent need due to the increasing challenges workers face.

These stories are a very small sample that underscores how critical child care is for the future economic and social health of our communities. The long-term economic impact of Wisconsin’s child care crisis is estimated at $4.2 billion to $6.4 billion, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Rural Wisconsin has unique challenges when it comes to early care and education, because child care deserts—areas that have only one regulated child care slot for every three children under five years old, or even fewer slots—are even more prevalent in rural areas (where 70%of communities are child care deserts) than the statewide average (50%). Importantly, this data does not reflect current waitlists or programs forced to either close classrooms or fully close due to a lack of staff; this means the challenges are likely even more severe than data indicate.

Rural Wisconsin counties also have experienced a steady 15-year decline in overall regulated child care capacity, including a staggering 50% reduction in family child care and a 20% overall drop in all available care. If we look nationally, it is estimated we only meet 23% of demand for child care in rural areas across the country.

Despite continued challenges, Wisconsin’s rural areas remain places of deep, lasting community engagement and pragmatism as leaders work to address local child care needs. In an encouraging trend, concerned community leaders are establishing task forces to better understand child care issues and develop innovative, community-level solutions in partnership with local early childhood leaders. These task forces are made up of business leaders, public officials, child care providers, parents and others who are deeply invested in developing short-term, creative solutions while also advocating for long-term, sweeping public investments into child care.

As a longtime and respected statewide early care and education (ECE) organization, WECA serves as a valued partner in communities across the state, offering expertise, guidance, insights and resources. WECA staff members connect with child care providers and experts throughout Wisconsin because of the broad impact of our programs, advocacy and research in support of ECE. These vast networks seek to advance transformational change in child care in Wisconsin and beyond.

Several of our regional partnerships resulted from local child care efforts joining the Wisconsin Early Education Shared Services Network (WEESSN), a WECA initiative that provides child care programs with the power and support of pooled back-office, operational and technology services to ease administrative burden and expenses. Meeting child care programs where they are increases program stability, and WEESSN is an important tool in this effort.

Through our work in communities, we’ve also seen particularly unique local and regional child care solutions and supports develop across Wisconsin’s rural areas.

In Jackson County, a four-year (and ongoing) journey that began with a simple conversation has grown into a broad community child care network that is working toward a goal of creating an additional 500 child care slots.

The Amery area has been on a long child care journey, prompted by a desire to mitigate declining school district enrollment due to a lack of local child care options. The school district began using in 2015, and continues to use, Fund 80 dollars to supplement the ongoing operations of the Clubhouse child care program.

The owner of the Antigo Child Care Center and local leaders are working together to create a unique model that aims to assist the local child care center, employers and employees through a tiered membership approach. Employers sign annual contracts to provide monthly base payments to the Antigo Child Care Center, employers are guaranteed a certain number of slots, and employees receive discounted tuition based on their tier level.

In the Northwoods, the Grow North Regional Economic Development Corporation is bringing together business and economic leaders— in addition to child care providers, parents and early care and education organizations—across an eight-county area to find solutions in the wake of broader regional workforce and economic trends.

While the common goal is the same, the strategies used vary widely, and they often embody the community-specific pragmatism that comes from rural officials working together across sectors. These stories represent only four of the multitude of child care–focused efforts we know are taking place in all corners and communities throughout Wisconsin, in addition to locally organized forums, events, seminars and other meetings—all with the theme of addressing child care.

At the same time, with an eye on the future, we know our state is coming to a critical crossroads: Wisconsin has received more than $800 million in federal child care pandemic relief funding over the past two years, with this funding directed by Governor Evers (with approval from the Joint Committee on Finance in the state Legislature) in support of the state’s child care infrastructure. The funding—in large part paid directly to child care programs through Child Care Counts to support staffing and operations—also included investments in salary supplements and educational scholarships for child care professionals, provider training and technology, shared services, assistance with program regulation, and employer-supported child care. Additionally, federal Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds were distributed to local municipalities and counties as part of the American Rescue Plan Act, with some of these entities opting to allocate financial support to meet the pressing need for child care and early childhood professionals.

This increase in public investments was gravely needed because Wisconsin faced child care cost and availability challenges well before the pandemic. Then COVID-19 placed a spotlight on the fragility of our child care system. Over and over again, we hear owners and operators of child care businesses speak bluntly of their reality: that without relief funding, they would have been forced to close their doors. Research shows the influx of public funding has been a lifeline for keeping programs open, staff paid and working families supported. In fact, more than 90% of center-based and family child care providers who received stabilization grants with American Rescue Plan Act funding said it helped their programs stay open. Three-quarters of providers surveyed said the end of stabilization grants, like Child Care Counts, would have a negative effect on their programs, according to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, which administered the surveys.

This is the heart of the crossroads.

Without continued long-term state and federal investments in child care, we face a fiscal cliff in 2024. We hope the lesson of the past two-plus years is that child care is a public good that must stay centered in the public discourse—because the reality is that we simply cannot afford to return to the pre-pandemic under-resourcing of early care and education.

That is why we need the voices of business and economic leaders, child care professionals, families and community officials in advocacy efforts moving forward. People in our state’s rural areas need to tell their powerful stories of child care capacity needs, affordability challenges and economic implications to elected officials and policymakers. This participation and engagement is essential for increasing long-term state and federal investments into child care.

WECA has long led and participated in advocacy work, but took a new step in those efforts in April when we launched Raising Wisconsin, a statewide policy and advocacy initiative focusing on access to high-quality, affordable and accessible child care; the child care workforce; and the optimal health and well-being of our state’s youngest children. Raising Wisconsin brings together a multi-sector coalition of entities representing health care, community action partners, faith-based organizations, philanthropy, multicultural communities, municipal and county associations, and a variety of other social impact organizations. We know we are stronger when we have a broad range of people and organizations working toward shared goals and outcomes.

The initiative also encourages participation from all those with a vested interest in child care, including employers, economic officials, families, child care professionals and community leaders. We need and welcome more voices and partners into these efforts to ensure we achieve the policy changes that are essential to our state’s economic future. Our policy priorities reflect current and future needs to ensure that our youngest children and their families have the economic and social supports they need to thrive.

We hope you will join us on this critically important journey as we work to enhance the lives of young children, families, child care professionals, the economy and our communities. Sign up to receive our Raising Wisconsin Advocacy Digest and Advocacy Alerts, e-newsletters dedicated to timely and relevant policy and advocacy updates, calls to action and up-to-date research in ECE, and optimal child health and well-being. We also encourage you to visit Raising Wisconsin’s website, which includes tools and resources for taking action.

We must work together to raise children in a Wisconsin where they and their families are able to not just survive but thrive.

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