Evers calls on Legislature to use federal dollars for Child Care Counts but program still ending in 2024

There is no new federal money for Child Care Counts and without budget funds, it ends

Corrine Hendrickson sits near two children.
Corrine Hendrickson, owner of Corrine’s Little Explorers, sits with children, parents, and teachers during the “Day Without Child Care” on Monday, May 8, 2023, in New Glarus, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Many child care providers and parents were devastated earlier this month when Republicans in the Legislature defunded Child Care Counts, Wisconsin’s pandemic-era child care subsidy program.

On Thursday, a series of tweets and a press release from Gov. Tony Evers gave them hope the program could be saved.

“Today, I submitted a formal request to the Joint Finance Committee to use remaining federal relief dollars to support Wisconsin’s early care and education community through the Child Care Counts program,” Evers tweeted.

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But there is no new money.

“It’s procedural,” said Corrine Hendrickson, owner of Corrine’s Little Explorers in New Glarus and a vocal advocate for the industry. “There are zero extra dollars.”

The remaining federal dollars Evers is talking about will only support Child Care Counts through January 2024.

And then the program, which has increased pay for providers and kept costs more reasonable for parents, will still end without the $340 million Evers requested in the 2023-25 budget.

Child Care Counts started in 2020 and was later expanded through the federal Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021. That act included the Child Care Development Block Grant award where money for Child Care Counts was allocated.

To date, the program has distributed more than $378 million to 4,345 providers in Wisconsin who care for 113,000 children.

According to an October 2022 survey by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, more than a quarter of child care providers said they would have shut their doors without the Child Care Counts programs. And a majority surveyed — 60.6 percent — reported they will have to increase tuition when the program expires.

Debbie Drew has run St. John’s Child Development Center in Portage for more than 20 years. She has used Child Care Counts funds to give her employees a $2 an hour raise, but said when funding runs out, she’ll have to cut their pay.

Drew, who used to have 25 employees and now has 12 because of how low-paying child care is, is afraid she’ll lose more employees and eventually have to close her doors.

“The state of Wisconsin has invested in us and spent a lot of money on us,” Drew said. “When they take this away and these centers close, you have just lost billions of dollars. That’s what they don’t understand.”

Hendrickson said she has been fielding calls since Thursday from excited parents and providers about the “additional” federal funds that could save the program.

“Yeah, it’s very disappointing,” she said. “This is just making sure that what was planned continues and that any unspent funds get pushed to Child Care Counts, and it’s not going to be a lot of money.”

In June, funding for Child Care Counts was cut in half and more restrictions were put in place. Funds could only be used to reduce tuition and fees for families using the Wisconsin Shares subsidy. And child care providers could not cover costs like their mortgages if they used their homes as their business.

Gina Page, a spokeswoman for DCF, said the Evers administration is asking Joint Finance to move unobligated ARPA funds, to Child Care Counts. The exact amount of those funds is unknown, Page said. Secondly, they are requesting $11 million in federal funds unspent from the Wisconsin Shares subsidy program be moved into the Child Care Counts program. There is also a request for about $2 million of ARPA funding for continued Child Care Counts administrative costs.

“This request is not extending the program or increasing payments,” Page said.

All of the federal funds have to be spent by January 2024, which is why the money can’t be stretched into 2024.

The Joint Finance Committee has to approve spending the rest of the federal funds on Child Care Counts. Members of the Joint Finance Committee did not immediately respond to request for comment.