A strained industry leaves Madison’s kids without care and workers without options

Part one of a two-part report on the Madison area’s broken childcare landscape.
An illustration shows a childcare worker playing with blocks with a small child. Both have their hands on a block, and the worker has turned away from the child with a tear running from their eye. In the background is a stuffed animal, a shelf of books, and a childlike drawing of cows.
Illustration by Madeline Vogt.

Part one of a two-part report on the Madison area’s broken childcare landscape. 

Thousands of children across Madison are stuck on waiting lists for sought-after spots in local daycares. And the problem could soon get much worse.

By the City of Madison’s measure, the number of children without access to childcare in the city proper is around 2,500. The total number of children awaiting care in Dane County approaches 6,000. Those numbers come from Monty Marsh, early care and education manager for the city’s Community Development Division. 

And while those figures might represent some double-counting of kids whose names appear on the wait lists of multiple childcare providers, others likely avoid census by not appearing on any waiting lists, either because their families cannot afford to send them, or their parents have given up on waiting for a spot to open up.


Working parents repeatedly run the mental math on whether the tuition for their children’s daycare and preschool are worth the hefty price tag. Every childcare provider who spoke with Tone Madison for this story charges parents hundreds of dollars per week in tuition, though some offered scholarship opportunities or accepted government tuition assistance to lower the price tag. For many families, childcare costs can equal or exceed the exorbitant cost of housing, another human necessity our country fails to guarantee to all.

Between clawing at sky-high overhead costs, and parents whose budgets cannot stand another increase in tuition payments, childcare providers struggle to hold their businesses together.

Left alone to manage rooms full of children struggling to understand the complicated world around them stand early childcare workers. Most are laboring for less money than they could make as a public school teacher, a Target retail employee, or a McDonald’s drive-thru attendant.

The state of early child care in the United States festers in dire need of collectivized help and support. Madison, for all its liberal and progressive bona fides, is no exception.

Staff it

“Oh, it’s staffing,” says Maria Fitz-Gibbon, owner and operator of Leap Academy, when asked what prevents her from taking in more children. “We have space availability. Our leadership team would be ready to grow and expand if we felt that we were in a place to find a consistent source of staffing.”

Fitz-Gibbon knows exactly how many more kids she could legally accommodate within her current spaces—one on Madison’s east side and one in Waunakee—if she had more people to watch and care for the kiddos. “Twenty-six,” she says without a moment of hesitation.

Those openings would go a long way toward helping working parents in the Madison area. Taking in 26 more kids would put a massive dent in the wait list for placement at Leap Academy, which is currently 36 children deep.

There’s a good reason Fitz-Gibbon can whip that figure out at the drop of a hat. It’s not one we would like to imagine as preventing our most innocent age groups from receiving the care they need and deserve. But it’s one that exists at every turn in our capitalist hellscape: money.

Each child that Fitz-Gibbon can care for represents hundreds of more dollars in weekly tuition that she can count on to pay her bills, like the rent on her business’ under-leveraged floorspace.

Preceding our conversation, Fitz-Gibbon had attended an industry conference of childcare professionals and learned that the staffing issue plagues the entire nation. She estimated that a majority of the country’s childcare providers are holding their enrollment artificially low. 

“Pre-COVID it was a problem as well,” she says, “but I’ve never seen it at this level.”

Work it

Nineteen dollars. When asked to identify what you need to earn per hour in the Madison area to enjoy your time on this rapidly frying and commercialized earth, the City of Madison’s Community Development Division, as well as childcare workers, will cite a figure in that range. That’s $39,520 per year before taxes, assuming you work full-time. Even that minimum is hard to find, and it’s pushing people away from this work.


“The reason that I’m leaving is pay, mainly,” says Aliza Shafer, a former early childcare worker who was in the process of quitting her job at the time of our conversation. “For anybody that’s living under a rock, prices have gone up for everything. And that is not being shown in my paychecks.”

Multiple owners and operators of childcare centers who spoke to me for this story said government subsidies offered in response to the pandemic have artificially inflated wages. That money now dwindles, threatening to crash already low pay rates.

Wage gains have progressed so slowly that even the ongoing fight for a $15 per hour minimum feels like an inadequate consolation prize at this point. Yet, even this small concession to the working class would serve as a boon to new early childcare workers in the Madison area, who start at an average of $14 per hour, according to City officials.

An early childcare worker who spoke with Tone Madison on the condition of anonymity told me about their coworker recently hired by a Sun Prairie daycare to work with toddlers for $10 per hour.

With incomes so low, it’s no wonder that few people want to work in childcare. The answer seems obvious: PAY PEOPLE MORE.

We will pause our story for childcare center owners and operators to roll their eyes.

People in these roles understand a fact of life: there is no more money. If there were, they’d shovel it into salaries. But childcare as an industry operates on razor-thin margins. Competition for staff is fierce, and without enough teachers these businesses cannot take in additional kids and collect more tuition.

Shafer, who holds a master’s degree and qualifications as a doula, says she started her first childcare job at $16.50 per hour. She leaves the industry a year and a half later making $18.18.

She says the money from childcare never covered her bills, despite her working at least 30 hours per week. She had to work two other jobs on the side, using her training as a doula and yoga instructor to get by.

“Those are very much [a] necessity, even though those are what I would like to consider my side hustle, because I love to do those things,” she says. “I have to do those things in order to pay my bills.”

If early childhood education promised riches, we’d have seen the corporate profiteers move in and monopolize the space, as they have done to many other aspects of our lives. But no nationwide brand opens childcare franchises in every town. There is no Burger King of daycare, no Jiffy Lube Jr. offering drive-thru diaper changes.

Kids enjoy their largest leaps in brain development during their first few years alive. So much of who they will become cements itself based on the love, attention, and education we can muster for them in this crucial window.

Our children spend a huge portion of their waking hours, perhaps even a majority, with early childcare workers. It seems logical that we would compensate these workers well enough to buy groceries, afford their rent, save for the future, and enjoy the occasional small mercy, like a movie night.

Quit it

Money isn’t everything. If it were, the Goodman Community Center wouldn’t feel the effects of the childcare workforce shortage as much as other care providers in the city.

“I think there is more going on,” says Letesha Nelson, Goodman’s CEO. “Paying [more] is one part of it, but I also think helping those staff members get what they need in the role—as far as benefits—is super important.”

Of all the childcare providers I spoke to for this story, Goodman offered the most generous base starting salary for educators: $15 per hour with a plethora of additional compensation opportunities based on education. Some of Goodman’s most specialized positions earn $20 per hour at base.

However, Goodman also suffered from the highest turnover rate of any childcare center I spoke to—70 percent, compared to the Wisconsin average of between 30 and 45, according to analysis by the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association. 

“Money is part of it,” Nelson says. “But there’s other things that we can also do to help those who want to be in childcare, stay.”

As a goal, Nelson hopes to get all of her childcare staff to earn at least $20 per hour. But that pay, she says, needs to pair with additional benefits that make the work more palatable as a long-term career.

“Because we also have staff in those roles [who] … haven’t gotten certified or been in school, to get degrees to become the assistant director to manager in childcare or to director and childcare,” Nelson says. “Then we have to also provide [an] opportunity for them to elevate in their own right.”

Specifically, she wants to see greater investment in continuing education for childcare staff to help them rise through the ranks and eventually earn managerial positions. She also stressed the importance of 401K and 403B benefits in enhancing the long-term value of the career path.

Childcare workers and managers who spoke with me for this story made it clear that most people don’t stay in the childcare industry. They instead opt for more lucrative or less stressful work in other fields.

When I asked these workers why there’s so much turnover, many of their answers reflected the central issues driving other labor struggles that have played out recently in the Madison area. These centered around benefits and workload.

But one issue stood head-and-shoulders above the rest: respect.

We’ll explore that more in part two of this report, along with some of the big-picture funding uncertainties looming over the childcare world. The pandemic should have been the death knell for many childcare providers as costs ballooned and incomes stagnated. But many children continue to receive care, thanks to government subsidies that now threaten to evaporate. Our childcare crisis may get a whole lot worse if our leaders don’t take decisive action.

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