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New draft child care bill would give licensed providers a larger 4K kindergarten role

Republican lawmakers are circulating draft legislation that would allow parents who want to enroll their children in 4-year-old kindergarten preschool to opt for a licensed child care provider to provide that program.

Child care providers are welcoming the legislation, saying it could provide some relief to their financial strain. It also builds on a growing push at both the federal and state level to encourage more preschool programs for children.

And child care advocates say it’s in line with a broad consensus encouraging public funding for preschool programs whether they are provided by school districts directly or by licensed and regulated child care providers.

Wisconsin now includes 4-year-old kindergarten (4K) as part of the formula for calculating state aid to schools. State law allows districts to provide 4K directly — hiring teachers and establishing classrooms for the purpose — or to contract with licensed child care providers to provide 4K programming. Some districts do both.

When districts have taken on 4K programs and don’t include child care providers, however, providers say that’s burdened them.

State regulations set a maximum ratio of children per child care teacher depending on the child’s age. For infants up to 2 years old, there can be no more than four children per staff member. The limit is six per teacher for children ages 2 to 2-1/2, eight for children ages 2-1/2 to 3, and 10 per teacher for 3-year-olds.

For children 4 or older, the maximum ratio is 13 children per child care teacher, and at age 5 or older, the maximum is 18 children.

Child care providers take their role as children’s first educators seriously, according to Corrine Hendrickson, a child care provider and organizer of Wisconsin Early Childhood Action Needed (WECAN).

“We understand that young children do better if they have high quality early childhood environments,” Hendrickson said. But when local school districts start their own 4K programs, “it has pulled the 4-year-olds out of our programs” at a cost to care providers in both lost revenue and greater instability. “So that means that we have to charge more for the younger ones, in order to make up for that loss.”

The draft bill was emailed to lawmakers this week seeking cosponsors, with a deadline of noon Friday for legislators to sign on. 

Rep. Joy Goeben (R-Hobart), the author of the draft bill, told the Wisconsin Examiner on Tuesday that it could help child care providers by stabilizing some of their revenue.

“When public schools started doing 4-year-old kindergarten, that really caused a problem for child care centers, and it made them a lot less profitable,” Goeben said.

Child care providers “have a broken business model,” added Goeben, a former child care provider. “And if we can do things to repair it, it’s going to be helpful to them and to families who need child care.”

Wisconsin child care providers have long sought to be more fully included among the 4K options that parents have.

Working with child care centers is called “4K community collaboration” and has been recommended by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI), the federal government and preschool education researchers.

When a school district does contract with a child care provider to teach 4K classes, parents whose children are enrolled  do not pay tuition for those 4K hours. But Hendrickson said it’s up to school districts to decide whether to include local care providers in their 4K programming.

“They also dictate the terms of the contract, our curriculum, and how much of the money that school gets from DPI [is paid to the child care center] for our work,” Hendrickson said.

The proposed bill would require school districts with a 4K program to let parents choose whether their preschool children enroll in the school’s program or in a 4K program offered by a community child care center, if it has one.

The draft legislation would require a school that provides a 4K program to also contract with community licensed child care providers in good standing with the state to provide 4K programming. For every 4K student the provider enrolls, the school would be required to pay community providers at least 95% of the per-pupil revenue limit for 4K students in the district.

Linda Kudrna, who operates a child care center in Cottage Grove, said the proposal was drafted after she and other providers met with Goeben and discussed their problems with the current community collaboration model.

In an interview Tuesday, Kudrna said that the revenue shortfall from losing 4-year-olds to 4K programs contributed to the financial instability that the Child Care Counts pandemic relief program helped address. Up to now community collaboration arrangements have “benefited the school districts more than they benefited the child care program,” she said.

Many families need child care before and after the three hours or so of 4K preschool. If they don’t get 4K classes at their child care provider, they must go back and forth between child care and the school during the day. Goeben said her bill “is great for continuity of care for our youngest learners.”

The proposal also allows community child care providers to use curriculum materials of their choosing if they meet DPI’s Wisconsin Model Early Learning Standards. The bill would not allow school districts to require smaller ratios of children to staff than the provider’s license permits, and it would forbid tests that are not required under state or federal law.

If enacted, child care center employees who teach 4K could do so without a DPI license, but they would be required to have a bachelor’s degree, or to have an associate degree in early childhood education and be enrolled in a bachelor’s degree program with a four-year timeline.

Joan Beck, a child care administrator in Dodge County who also met with Goeben, said that degree requirement would encourage more child care teachers to obtain their degrees.

Currently, the educational levels of child care employees can qualify the centers where they work for higher scores in the state’s YoungStar program, which provides some financial rewards from the state. But Beck said that’s a limited incentive.

A requirement for employees to have degrees in order for a center to have a 4K program “is really a strong incentive to them to look at more degreed teaching,” Beck told the Wisconsin Examiner. “It will improve the quality across the state of all [child care] programs.”

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originally published at https%3A%2F%2Fwisconsinexaminer.com%2F2024%2F01%2F17%2Fnew-draft-child-care-bill-would-give-licensed-providers-a-larger-4k-kindergarten-role%2F by Erik Gunn

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