Ideas for change, and expectations from policymakers

Daycare Dilemma
Updated: Jul. 14, 2022 at 11:59 PM CDT
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(WSAW) - As people experience the challenges with child care and all the various elements that drive those challenges, communities and Wisconsin as a whole are grappling with how to solve this web of problems without creating unintended consequences. Some people are asking for something new, others are looking at existing industry systems and rules to see what can be changed. However, the policymakers who created these rules have thoughts about people asking to change the latter and what is or is not on the table and why.

Those who are not very supportive of regulation say the benefits of not being regulated allow them to have the freedom to operate how they want and avoid some of the additional costs and procedures required by regulation. However, people who provide care for four or more children under the age of 7 who they are not related to need to obtain a license to provide care in the state of Wisconsin, with a few exceptions.

Those who are supportive of regulation also have a list of benefits for providers becoming regulated. Gayle Schiszik, a pre-licensing agent with Childcaring can speak endlessly on that topic.

She said becoming a regulated center provides some parents with assurances of what they can expect, like the individual has had a background check, training and knowledge around sudden infant death syndrome, abusive head trauma prevention, and child development and education.

“The parents can be assured that there’s been somebody that’s come in and kind of double-checked and looked at health and safety requirements,” she explained. “That they can expect that the equipment and the toy is material, down to you know that there’s not lead-based paint in the home, that the outdoor play space is safe, that a provider has policies such as child tracking, you know, how many children are my care and am I aware of where they are at all times.”

The education providers are required to continuously obtain can help manage children’s behaviors through making small changes in the center’s environment, like how a bookcase is positioned.

“If we turn this bookcase, we don’t have a running alley down the classroom and how that can change some of the children’s behaviors,” Schiszik explained. “They really have that support from a quality improvement aspect that can help support providers to navigate the different stressors that they will face in a career in early care and education.”

In addition, she said licensed care providers are able to legally care for more children. They are able to qualify for tax credits, loans, and grants. They are able to accept government-issued funding programs that support parents’ ability to pay providers, like Wisconsin Shares. Those who are licensed and participate in the quality improvement program YoungStar are eligible for even more benefits.

Schiszik argues that going through the licensing process and maintaining that status also adds to a provider’s credibility and professionalism, a quality many providers say they do not get credit for having.

Breaking the barriers to begin

Traci Wisz points out some of the elements of her backyard in Kronenwetter that she changed...
Traci Wisz points out some of the elements of her backyard in Kronenwetter that she changed during her child care licensing process.(WSAW Tom Zurawski)

With a high demand for providers and slots for children, how to break down the barriers of people looking to become a child care provider is one element being looked at to increase not only the general pool of providers but the diversity for families to be able to choose providers that fit their values.

“I wish more people realized how much work the childcare teachers put into it,” Traci Wisz said.

She is talking not only about the effort providers put into getting their centers going, but the ongoing work and attention to each child within their programs. In 2019, after having her second child and parenting two children under 5, she said she explored opening her own in-home child care center.

“The thought process was like if I’m going to be home, I have the experience, I’ve taken the classes because I had worked in child in a child care center in college... kind of thought like ‘oh this should be easy.’”

Many in-home providers start out this way, but Wisz was even further ahead with a foundation in some of the education and understanding of the field already.

“Even though my bachelor’s degree counted for some of the credits that didn’t count for all, even though I had taken some of the courses.”

She knew after not working in a child care center as a teacher for nearly a decade that she would need to update her education, training, and certifications but, “that was a little more than I was originally anticipating.”

Then there are the basic requirements to set up a center, with additional requirements for those who join YoungStar. Wisz said she was starting from scratch with her home as it was built the same year she was considering opening her center. While there were some modifications she needed to make, she did not have to worry about some of the requirements some older homes have, like lead-based paint. She reached out to her pre-licensing agent with Childcaring, the child care resource and referral agency, but she still found the process to be tough.

“The people I worked with there, as people, were great and as helpful as they could be, but they couldn’t come (to) do a site visit until your space was set up. But how do you know how to set up the space if no one told you how to do it?”

Schiszik explained to 7 Investigates that the services the pre-licensing agents provide are free to applicants through funding from the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families. The services through that funding provide limited technical assistance by phone or email (though Childcaring encourages applicants with questions to ask and not feel limited), along with a full policy review and one on-site visit, which is the last visit to determine if the applicant meets the requirements. Pre-licensing agents can provide additional assistance, but it is not free and includes milage, as there is often one agent covering several counties.

Fenced in

Some of the regulations are more complex than they seem, that is what Wisz found when installing a fence for her backyard.

“Like the fence has to be 4 feet,” Wisz stated. “We called the fence people; we say, ‘we need a four-foot fence.’ Well, obviously no backyard is perfectly straight, so then they (the pre-licensing agent) come out and they’re doing my site visit and they’re like, ‘well, you know this part of the fence isn’t 4 feet’ because it follows the ground and it dipped a little bit in a couple of spots.”

The fence was a sticking point for Wisz and many others who go through this process because it can be expensive. Schiszik said she tells applicants that things like snow can put people out of compliance if it piles up, essentially elevating the ground children can stand on and shrinking the barrier’s height.

“There is a permanent barrier requirement as part of licensing and, again, the most common thing that folks use is a fence, but there’s (sic) also other options that we have seen and have talked through about in problem-solving with, such as landscaping,” DCF’s Division of Early Care and Education administrator, Erin Arango-Escalante, said.

Arango-Escalante explained that this is such a common issue that many communities that have received child care-related grant funding have allocated funds to help providers purchase barriers.

In addition, she stated the department is looking at what can be done to provide more support for providers as they begin the process of setting up their centers.

“We really want to provide as much support and technical assistance on the front end,” she said. “So, not only is it focusing on the building, and the space, and the environment, but also focusing on business practices early on in setting child care providers up for success.”

Some of that added support uses temporary federal pandemic funding to help providers have access to free or reduced-cost trainings and education, as well as money to purchase necessary supplies or make required changes to the facility, as all of this can be costly. Start-Up grants from Childcaring, are available to help providers (for more details, click here) with some of those purchases. It also offers free foundational training using federal pandemic funding through the DCF.

Getting comfortable with ‘pop-ins’

However, some of the barriers for people looking to become providers has to do with being open to the ongoing requirements of running a center.

“Those unannounced pop-ins when you’re dealing with children cause a lot of stress on both the kids and the provider and then you’re not really getting the full picture,” Wisz expressed.

Childcaring said the unannounced visits from certification and licensing agents are a common concern from applicants, but typically from an aspect that the provider does not want someone coming in and judging their home and how they operate. Schiszik, as a person who does some of those visits, said she tries to come from a place of understanding. She respects that a home is a personal space.

“But when we choose to care for children, whether we’re regulated or not, we’re operating a business,” Schiszik continued. “And so I think that’s where it goes back to the why, you know, what is the real purpose of regulation, and it’s intended to protect children from harm.”

Wisz said she gets why they happen. The reason behind them is to be able to see how daily operations actually work without the extra polishing that could happen when a provider is given more notice and be able to catch any abusive or neglectful practices.

“I mean, it’s just like anything: it’s a restaurant, the health department goes in. So I understand, like, things need to be checked on to make sure that rules are being followed and that’s the whole reason that we are only comfortable sending our children to a licensed facility. That’s still the reason that if I was going to do it (open a center), I was going to become licensed.”

She said she just wished providers could get a little heads up to help children prepare for a new visitor. She said her own children were among those who had a tough time with strangers coming in.

Perhaps, comfortability with those unannounced visits comes in time as providers build relationships with licensing agents. That is what Heather Harriman, who has run her own family child care center in Wisconsin Rapids believes. However, getting applicants comfortable is yet another element to build the child care workforce.

Ultimately, after completing all of the work to obtain her license, Wisz reevaluated what she was getting herself into and decided she “probably bit off more than I could chew.” She decided to return to the job she had prior to her maternity leave but really respects the work early childhood educators provide.

“I think there’s (sic) more barriers there than there needs to be,” Wisz concluded. “I mean, we kind of talked about the coursework in the classes and setting up; if you’re doing it in your home, I can only imagine if you’re, like, looking to open a center that it’s a lot more.”

“These rules weren’t created to make caring for children difficult. They weren’t created to make it expensive, right? They were really created to protect children from harm,” Schiszik stated.

Beyond the beginning

Schiszik’s statement speaks to the criticism from some parents and providers (some licensed, some unlicensed): that regulations make child care more expensive and difficult for educators to provide than it needs to be. That the amount of documentation required, the very specific facility requirements, and ongoing education drive up expenses for providers, which in turn can drive up the cost for parents (that is if providers increase their rates on parents to adjust for business costs). That certain rules about how many children can be cared for limits parents’ options as centers fill slots more quickly.

As previously stated, the state is looking to assist with some of the expenses providers have concerns about through federal funding, however, much of that funding is time-limited.

Regarding ratios

As for difficulty, when asked about what could change to assist with at least some of the challenges, the most consistently mentioned answer had to do with teacher-to-child ratios, in particular, the ratio for infants.

“I think that just put a child ratio for children under the age of two just because there is such a dire need for that,” Jeannie Arndt, owner of Little Racecar Daycare stated.

“Lowering the infant age to about 18 months is something, I would say or even 20 months would help,” Ramona Mathews, owner of Honey Tree Day Care said.

The ratio of teachers to infants is the same for group child care centers and family child care centers: one teacher for every four infants. An infant is considered to be a child age 0 to the day before they turn 2. Essentially, an infant counts for two children above the age of 2.

For example, an in-home provider is legally only able to care for at most eight children regardless of the number of teachers. That provider can care for four infants, or children age 2 and older, or some combination that still complies with the infant ratio.

This is why providers say the older children provide more income for their business compared to children under 2; they can take more children in the older bracket. It is why parents have a tougher time finding care for their babies; the spots fill up fast even if a provider only takes infants.

“A lot of families they have one child and then while that child is still in childcare, they have another one and then they’re scrambling to find daycare, and that’s what a lot of my calls are,” Heather Harriman, owner of Footsteps Family Childcare explained.

“Three of them here are all the 2, but for a while there, they were all under 2, and they’re all like within a couple of months apart, and I had to hire somebody just so I could have them because they were all older,” Harriman continued. “They were almost 2 years old, like their care and the needs that they need from me are so different in comparison to like a 6-month-old. Like, it’s so, so different.”

It can cause families to split up their kids between different providers, or cause a parent to stay home to take care of their infant rather than continue at their job until their child (or children) turns 2. As Mathews mentioned, a lot of providers are asking that the age that is considered an infant be lowered to 20, 18, or 16 months.

“A 20-month-old is doing basically almost the same thing as a 24-month-old,” Mathews added.

“It’s not on the table,” Arango-Escalante stated. “We generally follow the recommendations that are set forth by Caring for Children, which is our National Health and Safety Standards that are set forth by our American Academy of Pediatrics.”

She said there is a strong evidence base behind those ratios.

“Part of why that infant ratio is set how it is to that age is because there’s so much brain development that happens and you wouldn’t want to dilute the adult’s attention by having even more kids,” Kelly Matthews with the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association explained.

It speaks to the research mentioned in a previous Daycare Dilemma report, which shows that out of the kids in care, children in the earliest age range often get the least amount of quality interaction with adults, especially as more children are added. Child care centers see a larger gap than in-home providers. This counters some providers’ requests that the state trust that providers know how much they can handle.

“If we think turnover is bad now. Well, that additional workload and stress of meeting all of those needs of all those children would be something that would be hard to do every day,” Matthews added.

WECA’s executive director, Ruth Schmidt when asked about any regulatory changes could be made to improve the challenges facing child care in Wisconsin said the change that would make the biggest impact would be changing the ratios, but they are opposed to any increase in the teacher-to-child ratios for the previously stated reasons. Essentially, it may be in the interest of the providers and parents, but not what is best for kids.

Arango-Escalante urged providers to reach out to their licensing agent if they do have issues where they may have to spit up a family, as they can potentially work out possible solutions. Her caveat is, “There are many situations when it’s not, it’s not feasible; it’s just not for health and safety concerns and and, and that’s a decision that the licensing specialist can make.”

Parent preference

Some providers and parents who are facing instances where they cannot keep a family at one provider due to ratios told 7 Investigates they would like to see some kind of waiver that parents can sign giving the provider permission to go over on ratios. Republican Rep. Pat Snyder who represents the 85th Assembly district in Wausau said he has heard from those same individuals.

“If we choose both (of) our kids are safe with this provider that should be enough,” he paraphrased their request.

Rep. Snyder has been on the Assembly’s Children and Families Committee during all three of his terms and chairman for the last two. He has focused on foster care and adoption issues, but when the pandemic hit he began learning about the issues around child care.

After his time on the committee, he said he recognizes the importance of positive attention, touch, and early childhood education. He explained after seeing numerous examples of child abuse and neglect, he is supportive of regulation that protects children and allows them to get the quality care and education they need.

“That’s what I tell some of my in-home providers that are licensed is that you know they are excellent, but unfortunately not everyone is at the same caliber they are, and all it takes is one bad report.”

Rep. Snyder did not say whether he would support a parent waiver exception to the ratio rule, but urged that there be more discussions about possible solutions to child care issues that include provider and parent input.

He explained that he tried to get a legislative council study committee together for this summer, but the legislature did not approve it. He is also on the jobs and economic committee in the Assembly and said he sees the impact this issue has on the overall workforce too, and wants to make child care issues a priority without sacrificing what is best for kids.

“Kind of like the theme from my children and families committee is the best interest of the child.”

Again, DCF and WECA are not in favor of any changes that would increase the teacher-to-child ratio for the previously stated reasons.

Upping the availability without changing the ratio

One idea some in-home providers have that does not change teacher-to-child ratios has already been implemented in Minnesota: large family child care centers. In-home centers are currently allowed to have a maximum of eight children in their care regardless of the number of caregivers. Implementing a large family child care center would allow for an additional caregiver to work and increase the number of children able to be cared for within the proper ratios.

“We could afford to then have someone to give us some of the leeways also of being able to go to doctor’s appointments without having to shut down things like that,” Mathews said. “And that would open up that we could be able to take on another set of four (children).”

It is a concept that Mathews said she has been pushing for over the last decade. It was considered as recent as 2019, but it did not make Raising Wisconsin, the coalition of early childhood advocacy organization’s most recent list of policy recommendations.

It would require several state departments and, in some cases, municipalities to change certain codes, but Arango-Escalante said this idea would be a good use of the Dream Up! grants DCF recently awarded to some community groups.

“We want to collect data and really think about what are those promising practices that can be replicated in different communities,” she said.

For any ideas or concerns when it comes to rules or regulations, Arango-Escalante encourages people to contact their local licensing agent. Their contact information is posted inside every licensed child care facility.

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