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Schools, child care providers at odds over 4K ‘community approach’ bill

Legislation would force schools to contract with childcare centers when starting 4-year-old kindergarten programs

A class at Kennedy Elementary School
Stacy Splittgerber, a special education teacher at Kennedy Elementary School in Green Bay, Wis., divides her time between 4K and early education. Splittgerber has more than three decades of experience as a special education teacher. Despite the stress, small victories keep her going “because they need me.” Photo taken Sept. 7, 2021. Anastasia Geigel/Press Times

Schools and child care centers are at odds over a bipartisan bill that would require them to collaborate when educating 4-year-olds.

Supporters say it would replenish child care funding when school districts create 4-year-old kindergarten programs, but school officials oppose “forced-contracts” and exempting child care staff from Wisconsin Department of Instruction licensing requirements. 

The legislation was introduced by state Sen. Romaine Quinn, R-Cameron, and cosponsored by several other Republicans as well as state Rep. Francesca Hong, D-Madison.

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It would require schools starting what are known as 4K “community approach” programs to contract with nearby family child care centers who are regulated by the state Department of Children and Families. Districts would be required to pay centers at least 95 percent of what they get on a per-pupil basis for 4-year-old students. Teachers at child care centers would be exempt from state teacher licensing requirements.

Some schools around Wisconsin already work with child care centers on 4K “community approach” programs, but on a voluntary basis.

During a public hearing Tuesday, owners of child care centers welcomed the bill, claiming that when more Wisconsin schools started offering 4K education in the 1990s, their industry lost significant revenue as parents opted to stop paying private tuition and instead send their kids to public schools.

Tricia Peterson, who co-owns Future All Stars Academy in Juneau, told lawmakers that happened to her when her local school started accepting 4-year-olds in 2018.

“They didn’t even put us at the table, but they decided to do a full-day 4K program, which took 48 percent of my budget,” Peterson said.

Peterson said her center focuses on building emotional and behavioral skills with 4-year-olds before working on academic skills. She also said the school has called “numerous times” asking her to reenroll 4-year-olds in her center, “because they cannot handle the behaviors.”

“One of my teachers always says (students) will not be 13 and not know their colors, shapes and numbers, but they can be 13 and not know how to share, how to communicate, how to stand in line, how to be patient and do all those things that we as adults do,” Peterson said. 

School officials at the hearing opposed the bill, saying their agreements with child care centers should not be forced. Oshkosh Area School District Superintendent Brian Davis said his district has a 4K program that serves more than 500 students, girded by strong relationships with local child care providers. 

“But we would want to make sure that we have the ability to just maintain those relationships and make sure we can filter who is in those partnerships or not,” Davis said. “So that forced partnership … it would be a sticking point.”

Davis also told lawmakers to oppose the bill because exempting child care center teachers from Department of Public Instruction licensing “significantly diminishes our district’s ability to maintain our high standard for 4K services that are needed for our families.” 

The Wisconsin Association of School Boards, the Wisconsin Educational Association Council teachers union and Wisconsin State Reading Association have registered against the bill. The Wisconsin Child Care Administrators Association and the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association have registered in support. 

Wisconsin Early Childhood Association Co-Director Paula Drew told legislators that while the organization “acknowledges that the way child care is funded is flawed” in Wisconsin, the bill is “pitting public schools against local child care providers.”

“While equitable 4K funding for community 4K child care is an important piece, it’s not the silver bullet to solve the current childcare crisis,” Drew said. “Above all, there must be an ongoing state investment to stabilize child care infrastructure in Wisconsin.”