Early childhood education advocacy pays off, but big gaps remain

Throughout the year, parents, early childhood education providers, policy experts and more have advocated alongside Milwaukee Succeeds and the Greater Milwaukee Foundation for continued funding for Child Care Counts. The state program was created during the pandemic to issue federal funds to help child care centers retain staff, improve program quality and reduce costs for families. 

Advocates asked the Wisconsin legislature to allocate $300 million to continue the program, since federal funds will be exhausted by January 2024. The request was not included in the final budget, but in October, Gov. Tony Evers announced he would designate $170 million in emergency funding to sustain the program until June 2025.

“While less than the original funding request, the additional $170 million of ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funding will help stabilize many providers across the state,” said Dave Celata, deputy director of Milwaukee Succeeds, the communitywide education initiative powered by the Foundation. “Nevertheless, this is a temporary solution that will not address the long-term structural deficits faced by providers. Over the coming one to two years, Milwaukee Succeeds will continue to assess the needs of families and providers and amplify their voices as we advocate for long-term solutions.”

Why supporting early childhood education matters

Vincent Lyles, executive director of Milwaukee Succeeds, explains that high-quality programs have multiple benefits for the community. 

“When it comes to the kids themselves, it reduces the need for special education, increases high school graduation rates, decreases the likelihood of addiction and arrest, and even leads to better physical health later in life,” he said. “When parents have access to affordable care, they’re able to take on jobs outside the home, thereby strengthening the workforce.” 

Callie Colbo is a parent and a Milwaukee Succeeds’ early childhood education ambassador. She knows firsthand the struggle of finding affordable child care.

“Long waitlists and high costs of tuition (with the first years being as much as in-state college tuition) are what pushed me into becoming a stay-at-home mom,” Colbo said. “For me, sacrificing career advancement, current/future income potential, and operating on a tight budget felt like the only option that made sense for our family.” 

Rilla Williams, the owner of Pristine Child Care Center LLC, entered the field after learning she and her husband were expecting twins and seeing the high cost of child care.

Williams believes all children and families deserve quality care in their neighborhoods, but maintaining an affordable center for parents that pays employees a livable wage is difficult. 

“Most programs would love to be able to offer their staff higher wages but can’t because doing so would mean even higher rates for families who are already struggling to afford child care,” she said. “We expect a lot from professionals but have not compensated them at the level they need to provide for their own families.”   

Continued efforts 

Milwaukee Succeeds intends to continue channeling its energy toward its overarching goals. 

“Our focus continues to be on our two goals: 1) improving access to affordable quality child care for Black and Brown children in the city of Milwaukee, and 2) supporting and strengthening the ECE workforce,” Celata said. 

Continued efforts will include:

  • Tracking and reporting on how providers are responding to decreased funding in terms of closures, cost and slot availability 
  • Researching why eligible families may not take advantage of the Wisconsin Shares financial aid program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families
  • Keeping an eye out for potential investments and sustaining those in process such as the Workforce Innovation Grant, which supports early educators, and Milwaukee Rising and Leading Men Fellows, which aim to bring more men of color into the field 
  • Supporting the Accreditation Facilitation Project, which ultimately helps providers increase the quality level of their centers and programs. Twenty-six providers are currently enrolled. 
  • Providing additional mental health and well-being support for parents, providers and caregivers 
  • Increasing awareness of the opportunity to build philanthropic support through the Foundation’s Greater Together Campaign and its early childhood education priority

Celata noted that more voices speaking in support of access to affordable, quality care and investments in initiatives are good ways for others to get involved. 

“One thing we want to do is shift the narrative that somehow this is just about parents or ECE providers,” Celata said. “The ECE sector has such an impact on our communities and our economy and our workforce…Action can include learning more about ECE, adding your voice to advocacy efforts, and financially supporting high-quality providers in Milwaukee.”  

In their own words

Read what Vincent Lyles, Callie Colbo and Rilla Williams had to say about the state of early childhood education.

Child care can cost as much as college. Why are so many centers in danger of closing?

Wait lists. High costs. Poor quality. I don’t work because of broken child care system.

Without enough teachers, my child care center closes classrooms and turns away families