A New Approach to the Rural Child Care Crisis

A New Approach to the Rural Child Care Crisis

by Michele Engh, Chair, Kickapoo Collaboration, and Director of Faith Formation, Westby Coon Prairie Lutheran Church

kaboompics_Child reading a bookWisconsin’s working families are in trouble, because Wisconsin’s child care industry is in trouble.  When parents can’t find or can’t afford child care, that’s a problem for them and their employers.  When we reformed welfare in the 1990’s, child care was recognized as an essential work support and crucial to economic development.  Economists have been clamoring ever since for a greater public investment in early education.  More recently they’ve been joined by neuroscientists who look beyond today’s workforce needs to the children themselves who will be tomorrow’s workforce.  Public policy has a lot of catching up to do; what we generally hear is some variation on “there’s just no money to fix the problem.”  This then has become the narrative we’ve adopted:  Resources are scarce, so just make do.

But here’s what “making do” looks like:  child care providers, especially those with the required qualifications, are leaving their jobs to work at local convenience stores where the pay is better; child care programs are closing, sometimes one room at a time, despite the need for more child care slots; quality of care is sacrificed because family providers are choosing to be unregulated in order to retain their clientele who can’t afford to have the cost of regulations moved into their pocketbooks;  communities who want to retain their young families and offer family-supporting jobs are losing the fight; and those within the child care field are sparring over meager resources rather than coalescing around a coherent political strategy.  This problem is universal, but is most evident today in our rural and small town communities, some of whom are experiencing what’s being called a “child care desert” – no available child care because no back-up plan exists when a local child care programs closes and the nearest alternative is many miles away.

Startup Stock PhotosBut at least one local community is working hard to create a new narrative.  Rather than accepting the story of scarcity, they are looking to the abundance of local talent and expertise, unwavering community pride, and generosity of citizens.  Meet the Kickapoo Collaboration Core Team.  Initiated in February 2014 as a grassroots community partnership, the team began meeting under the umbrella of Wisconsin Partners, a group of statewide associations. Wisconsin Partners believes in breaking down silos by building relationships among citizens to pave the way to work collaboratively on areas of shared concern.  Here’s the good news. Because of its impact on workforce and economic development, child care in the Kickapoo Valley is a shared concern among area schools, churches, local government, non-profit and business leaders alike.

The Kickapoo Valley encompasses communities as large as 4000 and as small as 400.  Yet interests as diverse as those of large employers like Organic Valley and Vernon Memorial Hospital join with those of a local cheese shop retailer, banker, auto shop owner, school teachers, and ministers.  They sit at the same table strategizing on how to best address their community’s need for quality child care.   The strategies they are discussing—like providing incentives for providers to become regulated, developing shared services among child care programs, leveraging community connections and resources, purchasing of child care slots for employees, and more – may not totally solve the problem, but they go a long way towards ensuring safe and healthy environments for the children, more productive employees, and community stability and wellness.

We will still need broader public investment, but perhaps this approach is what creates the political will to get there.  If more communities around Wisconsin embraced this collaborative approach, we would change the narrative about scarcity to a new one that highlights the abundance of creativity to make change happen that benefits us all.

Do We Need Bachelor’s Degrees in ECE?   			Our Response to a Controversial Question

Do We Need Bachelor’s Degrees in ECE? Our Response to a Controversial Question

Author: Peggy Haack, T.E.A.C.H. Outreach Coordinator


WECA is dedicated to enhancing the educational qualifications of our workforce and improving wages and working conditions in our field.  For decades, the dominant thinking has been that as we raise the level of professionalism (i.e. the skill and knowledge base of the workforce), better wages would follow.  As dictated by new research, the job of early care and education has become more complex and the demand for education more insistent.  We have watched educational levels improve, while there has been only incremental change in compensation. Rather than thinking one can solve the other, we need to consider the two as distinct problems that need to be addressed simultaneously.  Today is the time to once again wrestle with this dilemma.  -Peggy Haack, T.E.A.C.H. Outreach Coordinator

Women graduating from college

In 2015 the Institute of Medicine (IOM)1 and National Research Council (NRC), based on the science of early brain development, recommended that all lead educators working with children from birth through age eight have at minimum a bachelor’s degree with specialized early childhood knowledge and competencies.  Just two years later, New America, an organization “committed to renewing American politics, prosperity and purpose in the Digital Age,” in a report entitled Rethinking Credential Requirements in Early Education, suggests that bachelor’s degrees are in fact not the way to go.

Two opposing views coming from two very different perspectives – neuroscience vs. the current labor market.  What is one to think?  From our reading of these reports, it may depend on whose lens you look through.

If we look at this problem through the lens of a child – the way early childhood educators are prone to do – it is obvious that what is happening in these early years is so important that young children deserve nothing less than our best.  A highly skilled professional with a well-rounded education – like that required of all other educators – is fundamental.

If we look at this problem through the lens of a family struggling to pay for high quality child care, we can only see a failing free market system in which the true cost of child care cannot reasonably be assumed by the purchaser.  Until high quality child care is recognized as the public good that  it is, families will seek low-cost alternatives and low wages will continue to subsidize whatever program they are offered.  This is a difficult environment in which to promote higher education.

If we look at this problem through the lens of professionals who are operating programs, we are confronted with the immediacy of the problem.  A growing teacher shortage is the result of demanding more of teaching staff than they have the skills to give, or investing in the high cost of educating their staff and then not being able to provide the financial incentives that encourages them to stay.

students

In our view there has to be some both/and thinking around this dilemma.  We must continue to support a bachelor’s degree pathway in early education because highly qualified teachers are more likely to provide high quality programs for young children.  A bachelor’s degree does more than focus on specific skills needed in the classroom; it creates a learner who is engaged with the world, ready to bring her curiosity and love of learning to the children.  We must also be open to innovative approaches that support on-the-job skill building, because today’s children can’t wait until we land on a solution, and programs need retention strategies right now to continue operating.

The New America report makes some important points, particularly in regards to the difficulties of building public support for early education in our current climate.  The distinctions they point to between public education and early childhood as it relates to collective power to negotiate better working conditions also resonates with us. However, the author does not seem to fully grasp the fundamental differences in the way young children versus older children learn.  These differences impact K-12 teachers’ perceptions of our work and transitions from early care to elementary education.

WECA’s vision is that all children through age eight are engaged in play-based learning, geared to their developmental needs and supported by strong relationships with teachers who reflect the diversity of the children in their care.  In our vision, there are multiple educational pathways for early childhood teachers to take, each of which could lead to a Bachelor’s degree or beyond if one chooses.  It is our mission to address the barriers they may face along their path.

Currently WECA operates a T.E.A.C.H. Scholarship Program.  Over nearly 20 years of operation, we have learned that many scholarship recipients are inspired to pursue education even after achieving their original goals.  Many earning a Bachelor’s degrees did not start with that goal in mind.  Imagine the loss if we had taken that option away and had not encouraged them to reach their full potential.  Some of the barriers to education that the Apprenticeship Program described in the New America report – paid release time, personal supports/mentoring, and incremental wage hikes, for example – are also addressed by the scholarship program.  And just as there is an economic burden that T.E.A.C.H. shares with students and their sponsoring child care programs, the Apprenticeship Program carries the same or similar burdens.  Supporting mentors and engaging teachers in a reflective process are critical aspects of any learning opportunity and they do not come without a cost to programs, as the reader may have been led to believe.

T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood® WISCONSIN points proudly to our successes in improving wages, reducing turnover, providing educational opportunities to typically under-represented groups, influencing colleges to be more responsive to our non-traditional workforce, and celebrating the graduation of individuals with both Associate and Bachelor’s degrees.  Of course, there is more work that we must do.  What we must not do is accept that today’s story cannot change and that resources don’t exist to ameliorate the problem.  We believe that there is not so much a scarcity of resources as a scarcity of political will to write a new story for young children, their families, and the early childhood educators who care for them.

Footnotes

1. IOM is now referred to as the National Academy of Medicine (NAM)

Teacher turnover in child care stresses young children

Recently our organization released a study on the child care workforce in Wisconsin. Funded by the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families, the University of Wisconsin-Madison – COWS and the UW-Survey Center – conducted the research.

The findings point to growing financial stress on child care teachers, and suggest adverse effects on the young children in their care.  For example, due to poverty-level wages, more than a third of child care teachers leave their jobs every year, disrupting the quality of care children need in their most formative years.

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90865864If our goal is to ensure high quality care for children, this high rate of turnover is unacceptable.  Research confirms that young children require established relationships with trusting adults in order to thrive.  A disproportionate percentage of child care teaching staff leave within the first two years of employment.  Wages make a difference when it comes to turnover; lower paying child care programs have higher turnover of staff.

Existing solutions
For over 15 years, two federally-funded programs administered by WECA have had a positive impact on the wages, education, retention and turnover of early childhood education teachers: 1) the T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood® Scholarship Program and 2) the REWARD Stipend Program.

T.E.A.C.H. is a comprehensive scholarship program available to those already working in the child care field and pays most of the costs of pursuing higher education credits in Early Childhood Education. Scholarship recipients receive a financial bonus from T.E.A.C.H. and a bonus or raise from their employer upon completion of their contract. They are required to then stay in the field a set length of time, thus raising the educational bar and improving teacher retention.  REWARD aims to keep well-educated individuals in their jobs by providing monetary rewards based on one’s education level and career longevity. Notably, the turnover rate of T.E.A.C.H. and REWARD participants is significantly less than the child care workforce as a whole.

Moving forward
While T.E.A.C.H. and REWARD are vital solutions we know they don’t solve the entire problem. The release of the report and our insights and recommendations form the base of outreach WECA is doing statewide to engage multiple stakeholders in finding an enduring solution.

Stay tuned for more on this topic!

Jeanette A. Paulson
Director of Workforce Initiatives
Wisconsin Early Childhood Association

Highly educated… undercompensated

It has been my privilege to serve Wisconsin Early Childhood Association for the past 14 years. Our organization works to promote the critical importance of the child care profession and strengthen investments in the teachers who provide vital care and education to children from over 72% of Wisconsin’s families each day.

Child care professionals struggle against common misperceptions of their work.  Over time, I have heard variations on the following theme: “Child care providers are really just babysitters, aren’t they? Therefore, their compensation seems right in line, yes?”

Well, no.

In early July Wisconsin Early Childhood Association released a comprehensive study of early childhood teachers in Wisconsin. (Our last study was in 2010). The findings will make for some very different conversations.

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Take for example the education level of child care teachers. More than half – 52% – have an Associate degree or higher. This is more than the Wisconsin workforce in general in which 42% hold an Associate degree or higher.2  The education level of child care teachers has a considerable effect on the quality of teaching and on outcomes for our youngest children. Higher education at even greater levels for the early childhood profession is essential.
College graduateYet, there’s an unexplained pay gap. Wisconsinites with an Associate degree who work in fields other than early care and education can expect to earn $18/hour on average. However, degree-holders in early care and education can expect pay which averages $10/hour.  Annualized, child care teachers earn $17,000 less than other Wisconsinites with an Associates degree. The gap grows wider when comparing those in the field who hold a Bachelor’s degree  – $12/hour – versus those who hold that degree and work in another field – $22.80/hour. Annually, the child care teacher with the Bachelor’s degree earns fully $22,500 LESS.

Often I hear, “Well child care teachers don’t go into the field for money. They do the work because they love children.”  It’s a perception not unique to Wisconsin. A recent article in the New York Times described a conversation between a child care provider in New Mexico and a legislator she visited at the state Capitol to lobby for education funding:

“She remembered meeting with a senator who told her, ‘You don’t get into this for the money; you’re paid in love.’ ‘Really?’ she replied. ‘When my landlord comes, can I just give him a hug?’

  1. COWS, State of Working Wisconsin 2014 http://www.cows.org

Ruth Schmidt is Executive Director of Wisconsin Early Childhood Association and a registered lobbyist.

The Five Whys

The Five Whys

Stephanie Harrison

Stephanie Harrison, CEO, Wisconsin Primary Health Care Association. Executive Member Wisconsin Partners

In health care, we recognize the vital importance of early childhood education on long-term health and well-being. As we seek to eliminate health disparities and ensure that everyone in Wisconsin achieves their highest health potential, we must pay attention to brain development in our infants and toddlers if we are going to create long-lasting change in the health of the population.

One strategy is to include early childhood education in our quality improvement processes. For example, one of the tools we use is “The Five Whys” – a technique from the Six Sigma framework. When facing a systemic problem, asking “why” five different times assists in getting to the root cause.

Here’s an example of the technique:

1. Why is our county doing so poorly in the County Health Rankings?

Because a high percentage of people are living in poverty.

2. Why are a high percentage of people living in poverty?

Because the high school graduation rate is low and young people can’t access living-wage jobs that fit the education they have.

3. Why is the high school graduation rate low?

Because a significant number of students need remedial education services and struggle with  emotional and social difficulties that make completing school difficult.

4.Why do a significant number of students need remedial education and struggle with  emotional and social difficulties?

Because they did not get a firm foundation in these skills between infancy and age five  –  when their brains are undergoing the most significant development.

5. Why didn’t they get a firm foundation in these skills in their early education?

Because their families couldn’t afford high-quality early education.

The connection of health status to early childhood
The UW Population Health Institute  has shown that much of our health is actually about our behaviors and social and economic factors, like education and employment. As we ask why even more, we can trace things like poor health, smoking, substance abuse, graduation from high school, and employment back to the foundations for language, vocabulary, and socialization that are built in early childhood. In fact, the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University notes that disparities start to show up around 18 months of age.  This is particularly evident in vocabulary. In response, many community health centers in Wisconsin participate in the Reach Out and Read program as a way of getting health care providers to urge parents to read regularly to their kids – thereby providing a more language-rich environment for their children.

If we are serious about making our state a healthier place, we need to pay more attention to the education that our children are receiving at home and at childcare centers in their earliest days and years.

By Stephanie Harrison, CEO, Wisconsin Primary Health Care Association. Executive Member Wisconsin Partners

Investing in America’s Children

Investing in America’s Children

In April the Economic Policy Institute released a comprehensive report on child care in America – as an economic driver, a foundation for young children’s later success, and a source of financial stress both for parents seeking childcare and the workforce that provides it. The report is rich with infographics and gives a state-by-state view of the costs. Wisconsin’s data prompted a piece by Wisconsin Public Radio. In it WECA Executive Director Ruth Schmidt points out that despite high costs for families, early childhood teachers in Wisconsin earn an average of about $10 an hour. With an annual average income of $20,080, – 36%- of the childcare workforce relies on public assistance to meet the financial needs of their own families.Childcare-is-out-of-reach
If childcare costs are so high, why aren’t childcare teachers paid better? Part of the answer has to do with child-to-staff ratios. For example, by law one Wisconsin infant teacher can only care for a maximum of four children under the age of two. Meeting infants’ social, cognitive and basic needs requires a great deal of individual attention. Facility operating costs, equipment and supplies, the ever-increasing cost of rent and property, and the cost of complying with various governmental regulations contribute to the high cost. Ms. Schmidt says the onus can’t be on parents, businesses or government individually to come up with a solution, but rather “there has to be some sort of a tri-part approach.”

Return on Investment- Wisconsin-style

Return on Investment- Wisconsin-style

Many studies connect high-quality child care to positive impacts for children as they get older.  And many studies by economists, such as Dr. James Heckman, attach real dollars to the savings that are obtained. Articles, blog postings and opinion pieces appear on this topic with high frequency. The message that it makes good economic sense to invest in early childhood education has hit the mainstream, which is a good thing.

WECA wanted to tell the return on investment story that is unique to Wisconsin.  With funding from the Alliance for Early Success, WECA worked with the Committee for Economic Development to do just that.

Follow the story of Jack – a child who has access to 5-star child care in Wisconsin. See the benefits that accrue, and the dollars saved when certain things don’t happen (being held back a grade in school, being placed in special education, dropping out of high school, being incarcerated, relying on public assistance). See the economic impact when other things do happen (high school and college graduation).  The benefits and numbers grow exponentially as the scenarios expand to show the financial impact on Wisconsin if all our low-income children attended 5-star childcare programs.

WECA looks forward to sharing this powerful new advocacy tool and we ask you to share it widely and often. It’s yet another way to work together to create new practices and policies that enable all children to start off strong.