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    Wisconsin Republicans unwrap proposals for child care that Democrats call inadequate

    Republican lawmakers who have so far rejected calls to continue a subsidy program that helped stabilize child care providers over the last two years began circulating draft legislation Wednesday that would increase the permitted ratio of children to teachers and lower the minimum age for entry-level child care workers.

    Other proposals in the package of six draft bills include creating tax-advantaged accounts that families could use to cover child care costs and a loan program that providers could use to renovate their facilities.

    “Families in Wisconsin are facing rising costs across several sectors, including for child care,” declared a memo that Rep. Karen Hurd (R-Fall Creek) and Sen. Jesse James (R-Altoona) sent around the state Capitol inviting lawmakers to cosponsor the proposals. 

    The memo cited the cost to families of more than $900 a month to care for a child along with rising labor costs that have made hiring and keeping child care workers  harder. 

    “Additionally, Wisconsin providers are challenged with some of the most rigorous regulations in our nation,” the memo stated. The draft legislation “aims to help families afford child care and increase the accessibility of child care in our state through helping providers boost capacity and bringing our regulation in line with our neighboring states.” 

    Child care providers and advocates reacted to the draft bills with skepticism late Wednesday, and Senate Democrats as well as Gov. Tony Evers’ chief spokesperson swiftly dismissed the measures.

    Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard (D-Madison) called the Republican proposals “completely insufficient in addressing Wisconsin’s child care crisis.” Providers told the Wisconsin Examiner that the sort of looser regulations proposed in the legislation were not what they have been asking for.

    “This is a distraction so that they can say they have done something,” said Corrine Hendrickson, a New Glarus child care provider and cofounder of Wisconsin Early Childhood Action Needed (WECAN).

    Package details

    The cosponsorship memos set a deadline of 5 p.m. Thursday for legislators to sign up — a remarkably short window that suggests GOP leaders plan to formally introduce them as soon as next week. 

    The proposals and their draft numbers are:

    • LRB-3161: Creates an interest-free revolving loan program that providers can use to renovate child care facilities, up to $30,000 for an in-home provider and up to $100,000 for a provider whose center is not home-based.
    • LRB-3168: Adds to the state’s two categories of providers — family centers for four to eight children, and group centers for nine or more children — a new “large family center” category for four to 12 children. The proposal would require two child care employees for a center with nine to 12 children, and a large family center could not care for more than eight children who are age 2 or younger.
    • LRB-3294: Rewrites a current Department of Children and Families (DCF) regulation to lower to 16 the minimum age for an assistant child care teacher — currently 17 or 18, depending on the person’s qualifications. It lowers the minimum age for assistant teachers or group leaders for school-age children to supervise kids on their own to 16 from the current 18. And it removes current restrictions that limit the hours and amount of time that assistant teachers, including teenagers, can supervise children alone, while retaining a requirement that another qualified leader must be on the premises.
    • LRB-3528: Creates a state account program allowing parents or guardians whose employers don’t already provide federal tax-free dependent care accounts to set aside up to $10,000 a year for child care expenses.
    • LRB-4197: Increases maximum ratios of children per child care worker and the maximum number of children per age in group child care centers, and allows group centers to change their ratios of workers to children to match the average teacher-pupil ratio in the local school district.
    • LRB-4198: Relaxes restrictions that apply to certified child care providers — who are regulated by the county rather than the state. The Legislative Reference Bureau synopsis of the bill says that it allows certified providers to care for up to six children under age 7 and removes a requirement that some of those children must be related to the provider.

    The cosponsorship memo for the bill increasing the child-teacher ratio cites higher permitted ratios in neighboring states as justification. “These adjustments will benefit parents and group centers by increasing the availability of child care slots and bringing in additional revenue for group centers,” it states.

    The memo for lowering minimum ages for some child care workers argues that it would allow high schools with early childhood education classes “to recommend their 16-year-old students to local child care centers to build practical experience and interest in the field.” Those 16-year-olds, the memo adds, can be counted in worker-to-child ratios set by DCF, “which will help open child care slots, alleviate the child care worker shortage and lessen the burden of overworked child care providers.”

    Democrats give thumbs down

    The proposals “do nothing to attract and retain early childhood educators and deregulate childcare centers to allow more children per teacher,” said Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison). “From a parent’s perspective these bills are reckless and out of touch.”

    Evers, legislative Democrats and child care providers have focused on trying to restore Child Care Counts, the federally funded subsidy program that helped bolster providers during the pandemic. A $365 million infusion of state money to continue the program is part of a special session proposal that Evers has advanced, so far with no indication of GOP support despite warnings from the governor and other Democrats that a wave of child care center closings is already underway. 

    The GOP legislation “that could reduce the quality of care for our kids, fails to keep child care center doors open tomorrow, and provides no immediate help to make child care more affordable for working families simply will not cut it,” Britt Cudabeck, Evers’ communications director, said in a statement Wednesday afternoon. 

    “The looming collapse of our state’s child care industry will be devastating for our kids, families, workers, and economy,” she added. “Republicans must get serious about meaningfully addressing our state’s generational workforce challenges, and that includes making sure child care is affordable and accessible for families across our state.”

    Providers say proposals won’t help them

    Three providers told the Wisconsin Examiner Wednesday that the focus on deregulation in several bills offered them no help. 

    “The 16-year-old brain is not fully developed or mature,” Linda Kudrna, who operates Linda’s Learning Tree in Cottage Grove, wrote in an email. “They would also need to be highly supervised. How can I expect a teacher to work with a higher class size and then give them a 16-year-old assistant? I don’t see this happening in my program.”

    Hendrickson said higher ratios of children would put many centers out of line with national accreditation standards and would probably also prompt workers to quit.

    “Anyone who thinks that these ratios aren’t out of line, I invite them to come work for me for an entire day,” Hendrickson said.  “Come into work and actually work — not visit, you’re doing the work: you’re changing the diapers, you’re feeding the kids, you’re interacting with them and all of those things.”

    Debbie Drew, director of a church-based center in Portage, said she was relieved the bills wouldn’t require centers to institute higher ratios or hire teens younger than 18. She views the proposal for tax-free child care accounts as likely helpful to the parents who rely on her and her employees to care for their children.

    But her own experience with inexperienced high schoolers makes her wary of relying on them as child care workers. Some were able to do the job, but others showed little interest and were inappropriate at times, she said. 

    “It’s not just babysitting,” Drew said. “That’s what people don’t seem to understand — that this is a big responsibility.”

    When she arrived in Wisconsin two decades ago, Drew found child care conditions to be far below the standards she had worked under in Massachusetts and earlier on a military base. In the years since, she said, the state has made strides in raising its child care standards and quality.

    Now, however, “we’re going backwards,” Drew said. “The state of Wisconsin invested in early childhood” — part of a commitment to education at all levels, she continued. “And now you’re going to go backwards by not continuing to invest in early childhood.”

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