Everyone agrees child care access is a problem, but Dems, GOP far apart on solutions
OAK CREEK, Wis. (CBS 58) -- As far as Sahera Abukhamireh is concerned, Wisconsin lawmakers have four months to figure out how to ensure many of the state's child care providers can stay open.
She referred Thursday to the looming end of Wisconsin's 'Child Care Counts' program, a pandemic-era initiative that provided direct funding to daycare centers. The fund is set to run dry in January.
The federal aid money allows child care providers to pay staff or cover maintenance costs. Abukhamireh, who operates facilities in Oak Creek and Greenfield, said the monthly payments have allowed her to pay bonuses and more competitive wages to workers.
"This is gonna be chaos," she said of the looming expiration date. "This is gonna be a problem. This is gonna be a struggle, so the state should continue the fund."
Gov. Tony Evers has called on the Republican-controlled legislature to commit $365 million in state funding toward extending Child Care Counts. Democratic lawmakers have echoed his message.
"Child care is becoming unaffordable. It's inaccessible, and it's causing people to leave the workforce, disproportionately affecting women," State Rep. Robyn Vining (D-Wauwatosa) said in an interview Thursday. "So, I do believe that Child Care Counts is a worthy investment for the state of Wisconsin."
Republicans maintain more money is not the answer. Earlier this summer, they stripped out of the state budget funding that would've extended the pandemic-era program.
GOP lawmakers on Wednesday began circulating a set of six bills aimed at addressing the child care shortage from different angles.
- Raising the maximum number of children who can be in a group center at once. For example, the current limit of kids five years and older who can be at a group day care center is 36. One bill would raise that number to 40.
- Lower the minimum age from 18 to 16 to independently supervise children alone, and lower the minimum age from 17 to 16 for assistant child care teachers.
- Creating a new category of large family-based day care centers. Typically run out of a provider's home, centers in this category could accept as many as 12 kids. The maximum number of slots for current family-based providers is eight.
- Allow parents and guardians to open state-issued child care savings accounts. Individuals could then donate up to $10,000 per year to those accounts.
- Create a new child care renovations program under the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC). The program would lend up to $30,000 to in-home providers for renovations and up to $100,000 for providers in a commercial space.
- Loosening limits on small-scale 'certified child care' operators: Currently, they can watch up to six kids under the age of seven, but only three of those kids can be unrelated to them. This bill would change the maximum to six kids regardless of relation
State Rep. Amanda Nedweski (R-Pleasant Prairie) said extending Child Care Counts was a temporary solution that would leave the state's providers lurching from one crisis to the next.
"That funding was temporary, OK? Everyone who was receiving funding knew it was going to end and when it was going to end," Nedweski said. "There's a fiscal responsibility of business owners and families to plan for that."
Rep. Cindi Duchow (R-Town of Delafield) added an income tax cut, such as the one Republicans are poised to take up in September, would give families more money to spend on child care.
Abukhamireh said expanding capacities would not address her biggest source of stress, which she said was paying employees enough to keep them while keeping tuition affordable for families.
"That's putting more stress on the teacher," she said. "They're already stressed out about the children. Working with young children is a very stressful job. Having more kids in the classroom? Honestly, they want to quit more, even. They will quit more."
Instead, Abukhamireh, who said she opened her business out of her house in 2000 before expanding to Greenfield in 2006, then Oak Creek in 2013, said she believed the solution was the state treating early childhood education as a public service.
"Like, what's the difference between a child care teacher and a school teacher?" she said. "Why the child care teacher doesn't get paid at least livable wages?"
"What are we gonna do? What's the plan? Increase the tuition? The parents won't be able to afford more than what they're paying now. They're gonna be quitting their jobs; that's gonna affect the economy."
Evers has called for a special session of the legislature on Sept. 20 to take up his proposed Child Care Counts extension. Sources at the Capitol tell CBS 58 Republicans are likely to hold the first public hearings on their child bills next week.