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Local childcare center credits state grant programs with helping keep rates low and support employees

Lt. Gov. Sara Rodriguez plays with children at First Steps Early Learning Center in Rhinelander. Governor Evers wants to include more than $340 million for childcare in the next biennial budget.
Katie Thoresen
Lt. Gov. Sara Rodriguez plays with children at First Steps Early Learning Center in Rhinelander. Governor Evers wants to include more than $340 million for childcare in the next biennial budget.

In the ten years Tricia Puth and Desiree Shaltis have owned First Steps Early Learning Center in Rhinelander, they’ve always had a waitlist.

“If we haven’t had a waitlist, it’s only because we just stopped taking waitlists for a while because we wouldn’t have a spot for over two years,” said Puth.

Puth takes pride in the fact that they haven’t had to raise rates more than a dollar or two in the last three years.

She attributes a lot of that to funding First Steps has gotten through the Child Care Counts program.

“That lets us keep all of the same staff working. When they needed time off for COVID that helps with all the other programs we had available. Wisconsin has done really well since 2020 at trying to help childcare stay afloat. It’s a tough field to stay afloat in right now,” said Puth.

First Steps Early Learning Center also sees very low employee turnover.

Puth also has two employees, who have been with them for more than 8 years now, that were able to keep working there after having children of their own, in part because of another state-funded program called Partner Up!

Bryanna Cummings is one of those employees.

“It was awesome because I really love working here. When I thought about having a child, I talked to Trish and was like, ‘I’m really nervous about being able to afford childcare,’” said Cummings. “A lot of times parents feel like they can’t afford to have their child in childcare and they have to quit their job to stay home with them.”

Employers, in and out of the childcare field, can apply for the “Partner Up!” Program which helps cover costs for businesses that buy childcare slots for their employees.

Lt. Governor Sara Rodriguez visited First Steps Early Learning Center on Thursday to learn the impact of the programs. She says providing affordable childcare is critical to Wisconsin’s workforce.

“Programs like the state is offering that they just talked about with us are allowing the center to keep their prices low enough so that families can afford to have their children here and continue to stay within the workforce. That’s what we want in Wisconsin. Childcare is critical across the board to make sure we can fill the jobs that we want to fill here in Wisconsin,” said Rodriguez.

Both Partner Up! and Child Care Counts were programs to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic. Governor Evers hopes to make them permanent programs by including more than $340 million for them in the next state budget.

Wisconsin Department of Children and Families Secretary Emilie Amundson, who also visited First Steps alongside the Lt. Gov., is hopeful there will be bi-partisan support to keep funding these programs.

“You have to remember that every single one of the programs we talked about today, Child Care Counts and the Partner Up! Program, we worked with folks on both sides of the aisle through the Joint Finance Committee Process to green light all of those programs. So they had a hand in helping to architect those programs. I fully expect them to come back and support that they had a hand in building,” said Amundson.

Evers will send his budget to the legislature in the next few weeks. Lawmakers will then spend the next couple of months re-writing it.

In the meantime, There is still funding available for the Partner Up! program.You can learn more about it on our website on the DCF website.

Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.
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