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In response to Republicans voting to gut child care funding, advocates and providers consider organizing a strike
Republicans voted in the dead of night to eliminate funding for the Child Care Counts program, putting child care in Wisconsin into crisis.
The Recombobulation Area is a ten-time Milwaukee Press Club award-winning weekly opinion column and online publication written and published by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.
In a session held in the middle of the night last week, Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee voted to eliminate all of the $340 million proposed to extend funding for the Child Care Counts program.
That decision is going to have a profound impact on child care providers in Wisconsin. Without this funding, as several studies have indicated, about 25% of child care facilities could close, wages for early care educators will stagnate or decline, and rates for families with children in care will likely increase significantly.
In response to the 11-4 party-line vote taken just before 2:30 a.m., child care advocates and organizers with Wisconsin Early Childhood Action Needed (WECAN) have discussed organizing a strike, leaders have told The Recombobulation Area.
Dozens of child care providers met on a Zoom call organized by WECAN the Friday evening after the early morning vote. Several people on the call brought up the idea of a strike.
“We started talking and a few people brought up a strike,” said Corrine Hendrickson, co-founder of WECAN and the owner and operator of Little Explorers Family Child Care in New Glarus, Wis. “We’re definitely not taking that off the table. But we’re also seeing where things land. And we have to really get parents and other employers to get the idea of what this means so that they can join us.”
Without the $340 million in funding for Child Care Counts, Hendrickson said, “1,000 more child care businesses will be out of business within the next six to nine months.” There are about 4,400 total child care businesses in Wisconsin, she added.
“Minnesota has the same demographics as us, the same population, yet (they have) over 10,000 regulated programs, and they just put $750 million in the budget,” she said. “We’re one of the few states that does not have child care as a line item on our budget. We invest $0.”
Wisconsin currently has a record budget surplus of nearly $7 billion.
Hendrickson was among those who organized the rally held in front of the Capitol in Madison on Tuesday. At the rally, parents and children, advocates and providers spoke about what it would mean to lose the funding for Child Care Counts that was part of Gov. Tony Evers’ budget proposal. Many emphasized the challenges that providers would face in efforts to remain open, and parents discussed the difficulties in finding and affording child care, and the potential of being forced to leave the workforce without child care.
Cost increases for families, she said, would be estimated in the 10% to 20% range in more urban areas, but in rural areas, they could see increases in the 30% to 50% range.
Several Democratic legislators joined the rally, including leadership from both the Senate and Assembly.
“Without this program, the child care market in Wisconsin will collapse,” said Greta Neubauer, the Assembly Minority Leader and a state representative from Racine. “We cannot wait until these providers are closed to do something about this issue.”
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Immediately following that rally, WECAN members living in the 17th Senate District received a mass email. That district is represented by State Sen. Howard Marklein (R - Spring Green), one of the co-chairs of the Joint Finance Committee (JFC), who voted to end the Child Care Counts program.
“The Joint Committee on Finance (JFC) has prioritized existing, ongoing state operations such as K-12 education, road maintenance and repair, health care and other current programs for these ongoing funds,” the email reads. “These are the core programs and services that we must pay for first.
That full email is below.
Among the reasons given to end the program is that it is funded through pandemic-era federal dollars. Funding for child care is among the last of “pandemic-era” safety net benefits to end. While this program was funded through federal relief dollars, Hendrickson says it’s wrong to characterize it as “pandemic-era” funding.
“It was funded with pandemic-era funding, but it was not created for the pandemic,” said Hendrickson. “It was actually created in conjunction with several of us in the field, along with our partner organizations and it was called Child Care Strong. So, any of those members who were in the JFC in 2021 clearly remember this was a budget request called Child Care Strong.”
Kelda Roys, a Democratic state senator from Madison and member of the JFC, said in an interview with The Recombobulation Area that this budget proposal to fund child care in Wisconsin was “long in development by child care providers who had already reached a crisis point before the pandemic.”
She said Republicans characterizing Child Care Counts as a “pandemic-era program” is “bullshit.”
“That’s a lie,” Roys said. “This program was put together for the 2021 budget…It was Republicans who said there’s going to be all this federal money coming through because of the pandemic, so pay for it with federal funds, show us that it works, and then we’ll do it with state funds if we show that it works. So that’s what happened. They took out the request for state money, they funded it with federal dollars .They proved that it worked. It saved the child care industry in our state. It kept the doors open at hundreds or thousands of businesses throughout the state and now Republicans are refusing to let the program continue.”
Hendrickson said there were 5,000 family child care providers in Wisconsin that had closed since 2007, but for the first time since then, under Child Care Counts, centers were able to remain open, and average wages for early care educators increased from $10.66 per hour to $12.66 per hour.
"We actually stabilized the decrease in child care businesses closing for the first time since 2007,” she said. “It worked."
Watch Hendrickson’s full response to our question on “pandemic-era funding” here.
Hendrickson said she and other advocates also requested a legislative study on child care last year and had Democratic support, but Republicans refused.
“They gaveled out in March and didn’t bother to do any legislative study committees (on child care),” she said.
State Rep. Jessie Rodriguez (R - Oak Creek), a member of the JFC, said in session that they would be setting aside $15 million for a revolving loan fund for providers.
“That is a joke,” said Hendrickson. “Clearly, they don’t know what they’re talking about.”
There are votes upcoming to finalize the budget, and advocates like Hendrickson are hoping there will be an amendment to the budget that would re-add the funding for Child Care Counts.
“There is still time to get Child Care Counts back in the budget,” Neubauer said during the rally.
Additions could be included in the final session of the JFC, through what’s called a “999 motion,” and amendments could be added when the budget reaches a floor session in the Senate or Assembly, likely next week. But those could be blocked by Republicans, who have large majorities in both houses of the legislature, and have not demonstrated any likelihood that they will change their position.
And despite repeated requests, the Evers administration has not responded to questions on potentially vetoing the budget over child care funding, as he has discussed on other issues (flat tax, UW system funding).
As for any potential strike, Hendrickson and the hundreds in WECAN are waiting to see what happens next.
“It really depends what they do in there,” Hendrickson said, pointing to the Capitol.
Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes The Recombobulation Area. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s also written for The New York Times, The Daily Beast, Heartland Signal, Belt Magazine, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He’s won 17 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.
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