Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Myth of 4-K as Subsidized Daycare

Earlier this week, a new umbrella organization focusing on early childhood education issues -- called the Wisconsin Early Learning Coalition -- released a press statement announcing some of the group's goals for the upcoming legislative session, which includes expanding access to 4-year old kindergarten in the state.

In response, righty blogger Brian Fraley dismissed the release as a "push for subsidized day care." And Fraley isn't alone in this view of 4-K. In fact, to argue it's just a way for parents to get their child care at taxpayer expense has been a main conservative critique of 4-K.

Two years ago, for instance, when the state was last in the midst of budget talks, members of a GOP-led budget committee looked into suspending state funding for 4-K. One of those backing the option, Rep. Dean Kaufert (R-Neenah), explained: "I just worry about it being subsidized day care for certain children."

To be sure, this line has strong rhetorical value because it plays into the perceptions of people without children and, perhaps to a lesser extent, stay-at-home parents who are led to believe there's a selfish motivation for 4-K that really isn't about benefiting children, communities, or the state as much of the research on the topic makes out.

Hence, the opponents of 4-K aren't just saying that 4-K isn't necessary for some kids, they're also implicitly (or, in some cases, explicitly) making the argument that the only reason 4-K exists for those kids who, they argue, don't need it developmentally is because their parents want it financially.

But this critique of 4-K, to put it bluntly, is a myth.

It comes down to the fact the 4-K programs are not full day affairs. In fact, the DPI sets the standard for 4-K programs at 437 hours of operation per school year, which comes out to 2.5 hours per day in a 175 day school year.

In Whitefish Bay, where I live, the 4-K program runs from 9:15-11:50 in the AM and from 12:40-3:15 in the PM. Parents need to choose one or the other, AM or PM, they can’t have their kids in both.

This leaves a significant portion of the day where there is no care for the children. For working parents -- the ones who, under the conservative argument, are supposedly reaping financial benefits from 4-K -- this means private daycare is still a necessity even if their kids are in the public 4-K program.

So just what is the cost difference between daycare before the 4-K program and daycare with the 4-K program?

The thing with daycare costs is that they decrease as kids get older. The most expensive care is for kids who are 0-2 years old, at least partly because state law requires a higher teacher-child ratio during that time. As the teacher-child ratio requirement decreases, so does the cost, although other factors could also play a role in the drop.

The Whitefish Bay School District partners with a local private daycare – Milestones – to provide care for kids directly in the elementary schools before and after the 4-K program. Younger kids receive care in separate facilities.

The cost of full-time care for 0-2 year olds in Milestones is $265 per week. That cost drops to $220 for 2-3 year olds, a 17 percent decrease. For 3-4 year olds, the cost goes down again to $195 per week, which is an 11.4 percent drop.

When a child enters the 4-K program in the Whitefish Bay schools, Milestones charges $175 per week to provide care before and after the program hours, which is necessary for most parents who both have standard full-time jobs. That’s just a 10.3 percent decrease from the full-time care of the child the year before.

In other words, the 2.5 hour length of the 4-K program essentially does nothing to the cost of private daycare; in fact, at least in the case of Milestones, the drop in cost when the child enters the 4-K program is less than the annual decrease parents see in the previous years.

And it makes sense, too. After all, 2.5 hours of less care per day isn't going to decrease the overall operating costs for the daycare provider in any significant way. The provider still needs to hire full-time staff to care for the kids, even though one group will be elsewhere for a brief stretch in the morning and another group for a brief stretch in the afternoon.

So while opponents can argue all day with the research that points to the benefits of 4-K programs for kids, communities. and the state as a whole, to argue -- explicitly or implicitly -- that parents who push for 4-K programming are just looking for daycare on the public dime is plain wrong.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Except I believe WFB is one of the few school districts (in SE Wisconsin at least) without a "full-day" K4 option. Even so, that "full-day" is still several hours short of most people's work days, so some type of before- and/or after-school care is needed.

And, we already DO subsidize day care. Much of it low-quality day care, because the state regs do not tie subsidies to quality. There are studies on the quality of child care in WI by the Childcare Research Partnership (I think) that found the vast majority of child care is mediocre or worse. Thus, even if K4 was truely subsidized day care, wouldn't that be a better use of the subsidy since this "day care" would be regulated and monitored for quality?

February 08, 2007  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

Here's the DPI list of districts that offer 4-K, and, aside from a few that offer full day Montessori programs, I couldn't find one that offers a full day K-4 program. This is probably driven by the fact that state law only allows (see page 22) districts to count 4-K kids as 0.5 of a pupil for state aid purposes (although the fraction can increase to 0.6 if the districts provide 87.5 additional hours per school year in "outreach activities"), so districts who go beyond the half-day model would be footing the rest of the bill on their own.

You're right that we do currently subsidize daycare as a state, but that's only for parents who can't afford to work without financial assistance for child care, not for the majority of parents who live in places like WFB, Shorewood, Fox Point-Bayside, and many of the other districts that offer 4-K.

But you make a good point that communities that rely heavily on subsidized child care through programs like Wisconsin Shares may be better off moving to a public early childhood education model (like Montessori) rather than simply doling out state funds to private providers with minimal oversight. But for kids younger than 3, and especially younger than 2, school age concepts and preparation is a bit much to ask -- although there is development, it's mostly just about care in those first couple of years.

February 08, 2007  
Blogger Daniel Cody said...

You're right on the money Seth.

The dirty little secret is that most conservatives just plain hates pre-K programs because they work. That flies in the face of their "big government can't do anything right" mantra.

The "nanny state" or "Subsidized Daycare!" arguments have been made by conservative think tanks for years, and every so often GOP legislators try to push some reduction of those programs with the above catch-phrases as their reason. Fraley is just the latest one to shill the tired talking points. A vast vast majority of people understand the benefits of pre-K programs and reject the kind of thinking that he's trying to advance.

February 08, 2007  
Anonymous m.z. forrest said...

There is absolutely no evidence of differenciated outcomes by 4th grade for those that started attending school prior to K-5. The same problem exists with Head Start.

I'm one of those parents that calls full day K-5 subsidized childcare. Once again we have the same issue of there being absolutely no educational purpose for having 5-year-olds attend a full day of kindergarten.

What drives parents like msyelf crazy who actually raise their children is these programs legitimizing bad choices. I've had relatives wonder if my kids are missing out by not going to daycare, since they stay home with their mother. K4 and full day K5 are simply a frivolous expense.

February 08, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

1. I strongly support 4K, but I think Doyle has dropped the ball big time on this one. They call him Doylie come lately for good reason. Maybe 5 years ago we had 4K or early childhood programs in several (8)schools in my district. After 4 years of Doyle's mediocre leadership there is only one left. Most of these programs are not even technically 4K, but have a SP Ed or second language focus.

2. Seth if you think that the only way childcare is subsidized is through low income vouchers, you need to do more research. Most daycare subsidization is directed at the middle to upper class not the working poor. The state does or at least had pre Doyle subsidized daycare centers in a variety of ways including teacher income enhancement.

3. So what if we were subsidizing working folks to work, go to the beach, or even get 9:00 lay. What's the big deal. It is certainly a much better environment than the majority of home environments. The so called right wing talking point about 4th grade scores is a bunch a crap. That's like saying there is no research to support Reading Recovery helping kids do calculus in college. No frickin shit. It is much more of a statement of right wing idiots that it is on the success of EC.

Four year old kindergartens main purpose is addressing the readiness question. What do we do when a child is not ready for kindergarten. Do we hold them back. Research shows a very strong relationship between that, redlining (waiting a year), and high school dropout rates. Do teachers spend more and more time meeting the needs of these kids at the expense of those who are ready. I have a feeling the right wing crybabies would not like that option. Then what? 4K and other interventions have been successful at giving kids a skill set in which to build upon. Without these programs it like building a third and fourth floor without a foundation. If a kid comes in and does not know any letters, or numbers where age mates can read and count to thirty something has to give. Even right wing crybaby's children suffer without strong, fully funded, subsidized early childhood programs. Geez, I miss Tommy when these programs were funded much better than they are today.

February 08, 2007  
Anonymous m.z. forrest said...


Last I checked, children completing schooling through the 4th grade was quite unexceptional. One would thing it is highly different than a class in college that your typical major doesn't require. Considering that 100% of Kindergartners complete the fourth grade, it seems like a relevant benchmark.

BTW, I'm not all that convinced paying daycare providers was better than paying mothers to sit at home.

February 08, 2007  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...


I'm not going to try to argue that you should send your kids to daycare. Heck, I'm not even going to argue that you should send them to any school ever. That's your choice as a parent. For some people, a stay-at-home parent is the best option, just as homeschooling is the best option for some people. But that doesn't mean either of those are the best option for everyone. And your thinly veiled implication that parents who send their kids to daycare and/or kindergarten somehow aren't raising their own children is as ridiculous as it is insulting.

And as much as you contend that kindergarten programs don't have any benefit for kids, the majority of educational research on the topic says otherwise. Here's research from the DPI on the benefits of K4 in Wisconsin, including a specific look at the positive economic impact of K4 programs in the state. Of course, I'm sure you'd be able to find research to the contrary -- as you can on just about every issue (including, I'm sure, research that says schooling at any level is both unnecessary and detrimental) -- but, on the whole, the research is there to support kindergarten programs. In the end, some kids will certainly benefit from it more than others, but I think it would be tough to argue that a well-run kindergarten program hurts in any way those who it doesn't help. And if only good things can come from it and those good things can be shown to come often, both in terms of the individual students and the community as a whole, then kindergarten seems like a reasonable place to allocate public money.


I'm not sure what district you're referring to, but K4 has only grown in the state since Doyle took office. Here's a graph from the DPI showing the growth. There were 180 districts that offered 4K when Doyle took office in 2002-2003, and there are 257 districts who offer it in 2006-2007.

And I'm not sure what you're referring to regarding state subsidized child care for the middle and upper class. The only state-sponsored child care subsidy program in the state, at least that I'm aware of, is the Wisconsin Shares program, which only takes participants who earn equal to or less than 185% of the federal poverty level. Do you know of another state child care subsidy program?

February 08, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Why would differentiation on 4th grade tests even be assumed to relate to 4K. Which 4th grade standards does 4K teach to, if none why expect a relationship.

As I said its simply right wing silliness. You may be one of those parents who give your child an engaging pre k educational environment and that is great. Most households can't or unable to offer such environments.

My greater point is that this is a cycle of life question. If you do those things and we have 3 or 4 kids in his / her K, 1st grade, or whatever grade you want to start,class who has no number or letter concept, where do you think the resources will go.

I think how Seth framed the issue is all wrong. Early Childhood is subsidized in many ways by the state. There is a certification process, and various grants that are handed out. The teachers themselves subsidize early childhood to a large degree. When you have 4K or other EEC programs any parent who sends kids to school benefit.

I am going to give one example. You have 16 Kindergarteners in a class, one in particular knows no letters. sounds, and numbers. In an ideal world you'd like to meet with all reading groups 3X a week. But, Johnny needs so much extra support that in order to meet with him daily you cut back and meet with 2 of your reading groups only once a week. These kind of decisions are made daily across this state. Good 4K or EEC programs are essential in alleviating these worse case scenarios.

February 09, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I am taking issue with your framing. Most child care workers are grossly underpaid, teacher subsidized. One program from the Tommy days was a small yearly income enhancement check for high quality childcares. This program has not existed in the Doylie admin. Your graph says nothing, and certainly your assumption that its growth had something to do with Doylie is less than honest. What particular programs and fundage do you think attributed to this growth. As I said, in my district these or similar programs have been cut drastically in the last 5 years. BTW it was not included on your previous list.

You framed the issue in typical liberal apologist fashion. I say with no apologies subsidization is good. It benefits all parents of the state. In the end its a circle of life question. The expectations of a Kndergarten classroom today is that you will read, write, and do math (even simple algebra). This is very different from the Kindergarten of yesteryear.

I think the real issue of growth is the funding formula. Why my district's money for education - 4K programs, continues to decrease under Doyle. it looks like others are able to expand those programs.

February 09, 2007  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...


Perhaps you took issue with my framing because you’re mischaracterizing it. What I'm arguing in this post is against the rhetorical line that K4 is merely subsidized daycare for selfish parents who can afford it but just don't want to pay for it. That's it. I'm by no means shutting out the arguments that K4 is a beneficial educational program for kids, their communities, and the state -- in fact, I've defended that point here in the comments.

Also, I never explicitly gave credit to Doyle for increasing K4 programs in the state -- it was you who said he tanked them, so I merely pointed out that's not true. And in case the child care worker income enhancement program you’re referring to is the REWARDS program, you’ll be happy to know that it still exists. Just in 2005 it gave out $1.4 million in stipends to over 2,300 day care providers in the state. The amount of the stipends has dropped in recent years, but much of that is due to the $3 billion dollar hole the state faced heading into the 03-05 budget along with choices made by the Thompson administration in the late 1990s to tie child care programs to stagnate federal dollars to help shift GPR money into paying for state tax cuts (which I explain more here in the context of the Wisconsin Shares program). Hopefully the state starts to shift more GPR money back into child care programming, along with W-2 as a whole, in the upcoming budget.

But back to K4, which is the topic I write about in the post, it seems you may be referring to the Madison Metropolitan School District in your comments about a district that has seen K4 programming decreased in recent years (I guess that because of your reference to second language schooling, since as far as I know the only second language public school in the state is Nuestro Mundo in Madison). If that is the case, you probably know that the MMSD has been piloting a K4 program at Glendale Elementary since 2003, and the goal – in part because this is a requirement for state funding – is to expand the program throughout the district.

And, in terms of the funding formula, it hasn’t changed at all for K4 programs. In fact, there have been only a couple of modest changes to the funding formula overall since it was adopted many years back. As I explain in the comments above, all districts get 0.5 or 0.6 state membership aide per K4 student. All districts in the state are subject to the same formula. If a district’s state aide is decreasing, it’s likely because membership in the district is decreasing (and that is the case for many districts in the state, which is part of the reason the state is looking into completely changing the funding formula, although it would take quite a political force to make that happen since there’s fear that a change to something as complex as the funding formula will simply create new problems).

That said, if a district is holding back on K4 it probably has more to do with revenue limits than state aide. Thankfully Doyle is looking into loosening the revenue limits on districts in the upcoming budget so that local units have more flexibility to make those types of decisions (with local public input, of course) concerning their community’s educational goals.

February 09, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm the first anon commenter...MPS has all day K4 and most other school districts around the state do allow parents to enroll their child in both am and pm programs if they want an all day K4 option. Perhaps WFB doesn't allow this b/c they don't have room?

As for mz's anachronistic SE Wisconsin in 2003 just over 70% of children were in families in which all parents were working (ranging from 74% in Washington County to 68% in Milwaukee County) according to the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, 2003 WisKIDS Count Databook. Childcare is not just an issue for certain parents. It is nearly a universal need and yes, sorry Seth, all day K4 does help serve that need. And it is good public policy to have it be so...we're waaaay past the argument about whether kids should be in day care. They are and they will be and, honestly, your economic interests want them to be...our economy would grind to a halt if all the moms with outside jobs stayed home. So if kids are going to be in day care regardless, isn't it good public policy to encourage the use of high quality day care?

Whether the state should actually be the provider of such care is really the issue Seth was bringing up initally. But if they are the default provider of care and schooling starting at age 6, why is age 4 any different? No child is mandated to attend public school and no child is mandated to attend K4...but if society values the availability of public schooling at age 6, even for those who could afford private school, why wouldn't it at age 4? Do those arguing K4 is an inappropriate role for the state feel the same about public schooling in general?

(And anyone who argues that daycare is something different than education knows nothing about brain development.)

February 09, 2007  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

Thanks for your comment, Anon 1. You make good points that justify the need for public K4 programs, but I'm a bit confused by your "sorry Seth" comment in the second paragraph. What exactly do you mean there? Are you arguing that K4 should be mandatory when you say it's "a universal need"? Are you taking issue with the fact that I think parents should have the option to keep their kids out of kindergarten (and schooling in general)?

Also, I'm going to again take issue with your comment that most districts in the state offer a full day K4 option. Yes, MPS does offer a full day option for K4 (as they do for PK programs, too), but that is the exception in the state, not the rule. Using the DPI list of K4 districts I cited above, I randomly went to a number of the district's webpages and I could only find three (MPS, La Crosse, and Eau Claire) that offered K4 on a full day basis. Plus, I also came across this March 2006 report from the UW-Extension on 4K programs in the state that found "the majority of 4K programs are offered 2.5 hours/day for 2-4 days/week" (see page 7). Also, for the purposes of my post, the most important point is that K4 programs do not need to go beyond 2.5 hours per day, and it seems clear the majority don't.

But, if you're still looking for more clarification, I'd be happy to contact the DPI to see if they have more conclusive figures on the size of that majority.

Lastly, you're right on your last point that daycare is educational. When I said that daycare is different from K4, I should've specified that what I mean is K4 could be considered schooling, while daycare -- especially in the early years -- could not. They are both, however, educational.

February 09, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anon 1 here...I agree that most districts do not officially offer a full-day K4 program, but most will let you enroll your child into both the am and pm programs if that's what you want. (I'm trying to locate DPI's district survey with that was done in 1999, I think, when they changed the open enrollment program to preclude you from participating if you wanted to use OE to send your child to a district with K4 if you lived in a district without K4.) It will mean that your child's classmates will differ from morning to afternoon, and, depending on the school and how many other full-day kids there are, you might have a lunch issue, but in most districts parents are not precluded from having their child there all day.

My next observation is just that, sorry, while I wish I were there with you on your original argument, I do think that all day K4 is something many parents seek b/c they need/want affordable child care throughout the day. I don't think anyone who values K4 should deny is one of the things that makes K4 good policy. Do you think it is better for the safety and development of a child to go back and forth between Milestones and Richards School each day or to stay in one, high quality, educational setting for the whole day? (Please assume along with me that the K4 offerings are high quality.)

My all-day K4 expertise comes from my own experience of trying to work enroll my son. He was ready for school and we were ready to save a little money on day care. But our home district only had wrap-around day care in one school, which was not our neighborhood school and which we were not guaranteed a spot. Putting him on a child care van did not seem safe to us, so we looked to other districts. Open enrollment was precluded since our home district did not officially offer all-day K4 and that's the program I wanted in another district. (Never mind that I could have done the enroll in both am and pm wasn't officially all-day and so it wasn't allowed.) But luckily for us, my son is white and therefore could enroll in MPS for all day K4 through Chapter 220. Which we did. And he is now in K5 and will likely go all the way through his school, because we love it. He has afterschool care right in the building and it all works out wonderfully and saves us quite a bit of money. But our initial decision was based on the need for him to be in a safe place all day and his readiness to be in a school setting.

My opinions are not, however, mere extrapolations from my own experiences. I think the fact that a bunch of school districts begged DPI to close off open enrollment at K4 is evidence that parents were seeking this out and they were afraid of losing a considerable number of parents to other districts. School districts cannot always afford to offer K4 though, because, as you mentioned, K4 kids are only counted as .5 or .6 FTE. Other evidence is the fact that most parochial schools in Milwaukee did not offer K4 prior to joining the voucher program, but they all offer it now b/c they know they need it to compete with MPS.

I wish I had time to do a survey of how many schools with half-day K4 have on-site childcare for the other half a day...that would give insight into how much demand/need there is for all-day K4.

February 09, 2007  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

If you come across that 1999 DPI report, feel free to post it here.

In terms of the safety question, I think the ideal situation is for the decision to be made at the local level regarding whether K4 is a half day or full day affair. If the choice is full day, then I think it's reasonable to expect the district to cover the rest of the tab beyond the 0.5/0.6 state aide amounts (or get it through some other form of federal or state grants based on financial need). If the choice is just half day, then I think the school district has an obligation to partner with a local child care to provide care during the hours beyond the K4 program, just as WFB has done with Milestones. If there isn't room to have the child care exist directly in the schools, then it's my view the district should consider having the entire K4 program at a site outside of the elementary school where there is room because, I agree, I wouldn't want my daughter taking a bus between locations every day -- not at 4 years old, at least. If my local district only offered half day and didn't collarborate with a private child care group to provide care the rest of the day, I would probably look into full day private 4K (and it just so happens that Milestones offers a private full day 4k program at one of its sites that only runs $14 more per week than what it charges to care for kids before and after the public WFB 4K program).

And, as it happens, many districts are pursuing the collaborative approach of partnering with private daycares, as this JS article from last April documents. Also, FYI, this EEM study by the UW-Extension involves a comparison of collaborative and non-collaborative K4 programs, and it includes a number of insights into the demand for and satisfaction with collarborative K4 (see the "Year II" reports, in particular), in case you're interested.

February 09, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Your reference to Glendale is a case in point. The Glendale program though badly needed no longer exists because of lack of state support. It was actually a pilot program through UW and the intent was that its success would increase state support for such interventions. That's the gist of my reference to Doylie come lately.

The last EC / 4K (special ed) program will close this year. It is no secret that Madison gets screwed year in and year out by the state funding formula. We certainly to not get anything near the 80% Milwaukee does. Looking at your list it seems to be expanding everywhere but Madison. What is funny is Madison is shutting down special ed and second language pre kindergarten programs when general 4K is expanding everywhere else.

As per your rewards program I know for a fact this is not reaching teachers, but that does not surprise me since Doylie's Badger Care does not reach kids.

My point about subsidization is simply you're feeding to righties talking points. Middle class childcare is subsidized in a variety of ways that you intentionally ignore. If middle class families payed their full cost daycare would be at least double. I am not arguing against this but only pointing out you use subsidization only to talk about working class families. At a minimum subsidization ought to include child tax credits whose intent is to subsidize childcare, non profit and religious daycares who greatly subsidize 4K and childcare services, city and county money that strengthens and regulates the industry etc.

It seems to me that subsidization, myth or otherwise is a non-starter. Its classist at its core because those who use the word include state support for one class of people but not another. It seems to me that the larger case for 4K is that we are all in this together and if one child comes to school without the necessary skill set to participate in Kindergarten then all children suffer.

February 10, 2007  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

Anon 2,

No district gets any state support until a K4 program is universal throughout the district. If Madison's program remained a pilot, of course it wasn't going to get state aide (unless it was hoping for some sort of limited time grant money to help get the program off the ground). MMSD gets plugged into the same formula as every other district. If it's getting less from the state, it's either because of decreased enrollment or increased property values (which is very possible considering Madison has annexed quite a bit of land in the past decade, and now it's faced with providing the necessary services for the people who populated those land grabs).

But if you have some evidence that Doyle somehow tanked Madison's K4 program -- while allowing others in the state to grow -- I'd love to see it. Heck, if you can even come up with a reasonably sound explanation for why Doyle would be interested in doing that to Madison I'd love to hear it.

On your point about subsidies, I was actually taking on a right wing talking point in this post, not feeding into one. The fact is there is no state subsidy for child care that's only aimed at the middle and upper classes. Programs like REWARDS and TEACH along with child tax credits, tax breaks for non profit and church-run daycares, etc., are aimed at all child care providers in the state, not just those that cater to the middle and upper classes. The only child care subsidy program that's aimed at a particular economic class is Wisconsin Shares, and that's aimed at lower income families (as it should be).

And you're right that a good defense of K4 is that the more kids who show up for school unprepared the worse it is for all of the kids. But how does my argument in this post take away from this point at all? All I'm saying in this post is that K4 is not, as some GOPers say it is, merely a subsidized daycare program for parents who can afford daycare on their own but just don't want to pay for it. That's it.

By the way, Anon 2, you sound a lot like Nate, who just so happens to be from Madison, too. I believe he's affiliated with the Madison schools in some way, and it sounds like you may be, as well. And, just like you, he refers to the governor as "Doylie" and has accused me on many occasions -- as you seem to be, although with a little less condescension -- of not being sensitive to or understanding the lower class in the state. Do you know him?

February 10, 2007  

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