Parents, child care centers face problems with 4-year-old kindergarten

Issues with cost, space create barriers
Parents, child care centers face problems with 4-year-old kindergarten

Is 4-year-old kindergarten working for working parents?

More than 400 districts across Wisconsin offer some form of 4K programming in their schools, but some parents say the design of many programs are putting them in a tough spot.

4K has become the new 5K in Wisconsin, with parents like Madison’s Andrea Berns looking to get their child a classroom experience earlier in life.

“I just felt like he would benefit from a 4K site with at least a classroom with just kids his own age so he can develop those social skills,” Berns said.

Her son Harrison is currently at an in-home day care that he’d have to leave for a new program. So Berns went looking on the Madison School District website for her 4K options and said she realized quickly it wouldn’t be easy.

“It’s definitely stressful,” Berns said. “This is a huge source of anxiety for me.”

In Madison, the school district offers a free three-hour free 4K option at 24 neighborhood schools, like Falk Elementary on the city’s west side. That timing may not work for parents who work out of the home full-time.

They also contract with 25 child care centers or preschools in the community who offer “wraparound care” or care and programming for hours before and after the 4K program. The district pays those community-based programs largely with state funding.

But those centers are allowed under district contracts and state law to create fee plans, where if a child is there a certain number of hours before or after 4K, they pay full-time tuition. In effect, it means those parents don’t get 4K for free and the day care is paid by the parent and the district for the same hours of programming. Some centers in the Madison area structure their plans it this way, while some offer discounts for 4K hours instead.

“It’s hard to know that I could be, for at least half his day, it could be no charges and he’s getting the same education,” Berns said.

Berns is willing to pay that cost, but then she found that some centers don’t have enough spots. Her son is on two waiting lists.

“I felt like looking in September for a year later was early enough and the fact that it wasn’t just blew my mind,” Berns said.

News 3 asked the school district to explain why the system works this way.

“When we contract with the community sites we don’t have the ability to influence their fee structure,” said Lisa Kvistad, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning in the Madison district.

Kvistad says in part that’s because they don’t know the full picture of the costs those child care centers face for teachers or supplies and they need the community-based options for working parents.

Madison pays community-based centers about $3,500 a year and that funding comes from the state.

The day cares, like Red Caboose Child Care in Madison’s downtown would tell you, their costs are far more than that.

“Not only are you supporting 4K but the cost of our preschool program director’s salary because we had to add that role to support higher quality programming,” Red Caboose Executive Director Lisa Fiala said. “It’s allowing us to pay teachers a higher salary because child care salaries are so low.”

Red Caboose has an income-based scale for its students and offers scholarships to families to help mitigate costs.That means there’s demand for its site.

“We have phone calls for 4-year-olds every day and our room is almost at capacity,” Fiala said.

So if spots are limited and cost is an issue, does this mean a lot of 4-year-olds don’t end up in 4K?

Madison best estimate is that around 75 percent are in the program. Statewide the Department of Public Instruction says about 80 percent of 5-year-olds took 4K the year before.

District officials in Madison say they are aware of these issues and next year will look at 4K is working.

“We want to be sure we’re providing families options that work for them and getting as many 4-year-olds enrolled as possible,” Kvistad said.

She would not say whether the district would consider telling daycare centers they were not allowed to charge for 4K hours. The issue there could possibly become that centers would decline to take part in the program. Fiala said Red Caboose would not offer 4K if they were told they could not charge for the hours.

Any changes would be too late for Andrea Berns, who will wait to hear whether her son will get into a 4K program.

“If he doesn’t get into these two places that he’s on a wait list for, then we’re scrambling for six months trying to figure it out,” Berns said.

This isn’t only an issue in Madison. Other cities that use the “community-based” approach to 4K also allow dayc ares to charge full tuition and it isn’t prevented by state law.

Not all districts only offer part-time 4K at their schools. The Beloit School District is the only one in our area offering all-day-4K five days a week.