By Tom Still

MADISON, Wis. – The numbers are hard to dispute: Kids who attend organized but relatively inexpensive pre-school programs are more likely to graduate from high school, to earn more as adults, to stay off welfare and to avoid spending time in jail.

All of that accrues dividends for society, with long-term economic paybacks for early childhood education pegged between at $4 and $9 for every $1 spent. Study after study, including some that have meticulously traced pre-school students into middle age, has reached the same conclusion.

Those down-the-road benefits have long been known. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, improving the state of early childhood education in Wisconsin has taken on urgency for providers, workers and employers alike.

That was a theme of a “Wisconsin Tomorrow” forum held Thursday in La Crosse, where speakers ranging from childcare professionals to economists to healthcare executives agreed: Today’s worker shortages cannot be full addressed without dealing with an emerging crisis within early childhood education. Here are some reasons:

  • Some people already living in Wisconsin feel they can’t re-enter the workforce unless high-quality childcare is available for their kids. That’s mostly parents, but some grandparents may be retiring early to help their extended families cover childcare – which also affects the workforce.
  • At a time when interstate migration is surging across the United States, people looking for better places to live may take Wisconsin off their moving list if they have doubts about childcare and education.
  • Employers who were traditionally “hands-off” when it came to providing workplace childcare are rethinking how onsite or company-subsidized centers affect recruitment, retention and productivity.

For some childcare centers, it has become a matter of survival. Finding qualified staff workers to care for young children is hampered by wage and benefit pressures within the larger market, even for trained childcare professionals who have dedicated their careers to kids.

In La Crosse County, a March survey showed nearly 20% of existing centers may soon close, in part because they collectively had 372 open jobs at the time. State regulations cover child-to-teacher ratios in centers across Wisconsin, so long waiting lists will only grow until more caregivers are hired.

“Children thrive, parents thrive, businesses thrive and communities thrive” when early education programs are themselves healthy, said Jodi Widuch, executive director of The Parenting Place in La Crosse.

The forum was organized through Competitive Wisconsin Inc., which is examining how local governments and communities can best use federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars to drive local solutions in childcare, housing, broadband coverage and more. In La Crosse, a pilot program may lever ARPA money to test best practices in early childhood education.

However, there are some potential clashes of ideas in how to best proceed. For example, local officials in La Crosse may want to involve schools earlier in the childcare process. Some existing providers, which are private businesses, see that as further competing with them at a time when they could use the help. Should one-time ARPA dollars be used to build physical capacity – or to invest in training and career development for those already doing the job?

There was broad agreement among panelists that a combination of private and public sector innovation could help Wisconsin achieve better programming and, as a result, get more people back to work.

Darin Buelow, a Chicago-based global location strategy leader for Deloitte Consulting Inc., said it’s a “no-brainer” to find ways to support early childhood education, not only from the standpoint of a long-term investment, but from the perspective of attracting workers and filling jobs now.

“People are moving with their feet,” Buelow said about current migration patterns, which are driven by a mix of job and quality of life factors. “There’s no question early childhood programs are a part of that.”

The business case for societal investments in early childhood education is strong and getting stronger, especially as COVID recedes. Evidence suggests investing in pre-school kids is the least expensive way to create the largest number of productive citizens. And with demographic trends deepening worker shortages, Wisconsin has a stake in helping all kids get a smarter start now.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He can be reached at