By Ellen M. Gilligan and Vincent Lyles
With a single investment, Wisconsin leaders have an opportunity to fortify the statewide workforce over the next two years while easing unprecedented strain on a system that parents everywhere rely on to support their families and their futures.
Early childhood education is the workforce behind our workforce. It allows the parents of young children to maintain employment and, at the same time, is one of the most effective investments we can make in our children’s academic success and our community’s health and safety. Despite its importance, the sector was already facing extraordinary pressure before the pandemic and is at even greater risk today.
That is why Milwaukee Succeeds and the Greater Milwaukee Foundation – in alliance with local and statewide coalitions in the field – are calling for a state investment of $300 million in the upcoming biennial budget to provide ongoing stability for early childhood education in Wisconsin.
The mechanism for this significant impact is already in place. We need only replenish it.
Wisconsin lawmakers were instrumental in the creation and implementation of the Child Care Counts program, which, since 2020, has provided vital support to early childhood education providers using federal pandemic relief funding. Statewide, over 3,300 programs have stayed open and over 22,000 child care professionals have remained or become employed thanks to Child Care Counts.
A survey of over 500 child care programs in Milwaukee revealed that providers are using this funding for basic expenses like mortgage, utilities, recruiting or retaining staff, and reducing costs for families. Without this funding, 28 percent of Milwaukee programs report they would have permanently closed.
By January 2024, however, these federal emergency dollars will be exhausted, and our early childhood education sector hangs in the balance.
If Child Care Counts ends, 42 percent of Milwaukee early childhood education centers report they’ll have to raise rates for families who, on average, are already paying a quarter of their annual income for care for one infant. In addition, 30 percent of child care programs report they’d have to cut wages for staff, who are earning an average of just $13 dollars per hour with no benefits.
Allowing Child Care Counts to end would lead to profound staffing shortages and reduced access to affordable child care. When working parents lack access to child care, or when its cost is out of reach, they are forced to make hard choices like working fewer hours, changing jobs or dropping out of the workforce altogether, leaving our employers with a reduced labor pool in an already-tight market.
Early childhood education is an essential need trapped in a broken business model. Families can’t afford to pay more. Educators can’t afford to earn less. And Wisconsin’s economy can’t recover and thrive without the workforce at full strength.
We don’t need to accept this outcome. Instead, we propose sharing in the solution.
For years, the Foundation and our community-wide education partnership, Milwaukee Succeeds, have collaborated with providers, parents and other stakeholders to demonstrate how early childhood education is essential to a Milwaukee for all. Since 2020 alone, the Foundation has invested nearly $8.5 million in philanthropic support for early care and education, and the Milwaukee Succeeds-led MKE Early Childhood Education Coalition has worked alongside partners including the City of Milwaukee to direct millions of dollars in public and private resources where the sector has needed them most.
Wisconsin currently budgets only $16 million in general purpose revenue for early childhood education, which is the minimum needed to access federal early care and education funds. That works out to a state investment of just $50 a year for every child under age 5. By comparison, it costs over $100 a day to incarcerate one adult in Wisconsin. We can do better.
The Foundation and the philanthropic community will continue to prioritize support for the sector, and we call on the Legislature to co-invest with us. By committing $300 million in general purpose revenue to Child Care Counts, state leaders would be strengthening the program they helped establish while supporting the many working families they represent.
From its positive impact on K-12 success, career and health outcomes to its reduction of negative social outcomes like addiction and arrest, the benefits of high-quality, early childhood education for kids are well-documented. We now know it is as important to our economy as it is our children’s futures.
Commensurate state co-investment would offer stability in the early care and education system that Wisconsin’s workforce needs and our families deserve.