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Evers’ child care controversy

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON — The Evers administration has come under fire for its intent to award a New York-based company a multi-year contract to lead the state’s child care quality rating and improvement system.

At the moment, the winning bidder is led by an old Democratic Party pal — with a controversial public service record. Wisconsin child care resource organizations worry the out-of-state contractor’s approach could prove disruptive and potentially damaging to a state child care industry still reeling from the pandemic and Gov. Tony Evers’ lockdowns.

A protest

Team Evers is poised to go with Shine Early Learning Inc. to run the YoungStar program, the state’s childcare quality rating and improvement system within the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families (DCF). The system has for over a decade been administered by Supporting Families Together Association (SFTA , its most recent contract running since 2016.

Wisconsin Spotlight has learned SFTA has lodged an official complaint and protest. The protest pauses the completion of the contract negotiations and begins a review process, a DCF official said. Wisconsin Spotlight is seeking a copy of the protest letter through the state’s open records law. Matricia Patterson, SFTA’s executive director, declined to discuss the details of the protest letter while the review is ongoing.

Supporting Families Together Association serves the eight Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies regions in the state that work to support and improve Wisconsin’s approximately 4,500 childcare providers. DCF spokeswoman Gina Paige says SFTA and Shine Early Learning each provided excellent proposals, but Shine came out on top in the procurement points scoring. Paige did not provide the financial terms of the contract.

‘Equity, not equality’

Shine pushes all the right buttons of Evers’ equity-centric political agenda. The New York company preaches that the United States is plagued by “historical biases and systemic inequities,” the kind of themes found in the left’s critical race theory dogma. The Evers administration’s request for proposals included such woke requirements.

“We envision a world where children become champions of their own making; where historical biases and systemic inequities no longer stand in the way of their infinite promise,” the company states on its website.

“The YoungStar training and technical system must be built on a foundation of equity, not equality…,” states Shine’s proposal response to the state, obtained by Wisconsin Spotlight.

It’s a return trip home of sorts for Shine’s president, Reggie Bicha. Bicha was the first secretary of the newly created DCF under Democrat Jim Doyle. Shine’s CEO is Henry Wilde, Bicha’s former deputy secretary and administration of Wisconsin’s Division of Early Care and Education. Wilde is home. He lives in Madison, according to his resume. And Ken Taylor, who most recently served as the Executive Director of Kids Forward, Wisconsin’s leading equity-focused child advocacy organization, is a member of the Shine leadership team.

Quality concerns

But Shine’s New York base, it’s out-of-state network and a plan of action that may cut staffing and rely on remote training has Wisconsin’s childcare experts worried.

“I do believe it’s going to be really difficult to move forward with the way Shine has made its proposal,” said Paula Breese, executive director of Family and Childcare Resources of Northeast Wisconsin. The nonprofit provides education, support, information referrals, and evidence-based home visitation programs and early childhood consultation throughout Northeast Wisconsin.

Breese said Shine’s plan leaves out details of how it would implement the YoungStar system.

“There is the potential for the Shine proposal to really lower the quality and we could see a significant loss of providers participating in YoungStar,” Breese said. Ironically, the areas of concern could increase the inequality of child care in rural Wisconsin and for children of color, she said.

That’s because Shine, according to the proposal, relies on virtual training and staff coaching from remote locations. Breese said childcare providers may opt instead to take the automated 2-star rating of the five-star quality rating system. Meeting 2 stars requires minimal paperwork for licensed providers  — and little connection to the network of support and improvement. Child care experts say those personal relationships are critical in improving outcomes for children.

The child care industry has been hit hard over the pandemic. Child care centers across the state were forced to shut down amid the COVID-19 outbreak and Evers’ lockdowns. In May 2020, 39 percent of Wisconsin’s 4,500 child care providers self-reported they had closed, according to the Wisconsin Policy Forum. The DCF had estimated the closures had affected at least 57,000 children and more than 12,000 child care employees.

Nationwide, more than 1 out of 5 of the nearly 1 million people employed in the U.S. as child care providers in lost their jobs by July 2020, according to a report from the National Women’s Law Center.

Many of the problems persist.

In Breese’s region, there are only 56 child care spots open for every 100 children that need care in Brown County. Nearly 1,700 children are on a wait list. Breese said there are cases where child care spots aren’t available until summer of 2023.

“It was a crisis here before the pandemic, and it has been exaggerated because of the pandemic,” the child care expert said.

Sen. Andre Jacque (R-De Pere) has raised concerns about what the changes in support service contractors would mean to child care providers and, ultimately, for the children they serve. He addressed the issue at a recent legislative hearing. Jacque is concerned about the potential disruption of the continuity of resources and training services the provider switch could create, the number of child care resource jobs in Wisconsin that could be lost and the impact it could all have on quality.

DCF’s Paige said Shine Early Learning would be required to follow all state laws in running the YoungStar system. There also would be a transitional period involved.

In its proposal, Shine asserts it can take child care quality control to the next level to “achieve more for Wisconsin’s children and families with a refreshed design.” The company claims it will bring together and leverage “national expertise, proven methodologies and the expertise of the highest-performing statewide early childhood organizations.”

But Reggie Bicha, president of Shine who ran Wisconsin’s DCF for a time, has had some very public troubles in his bureaucratic past.

‘Disturbing issues’

After Republicans swept Democrats out of power in Wisconsin’s Legislature and governor’s office in the 2010 election, Bicha was forced to take his administrative talents to Colorado. He was tapped by then-Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, to lead the state’s Department of Human Services.

In 2015, nearly 90 of Colorado’s 100 lawmakers demanded the Democrat governor sack leadership at DHS, which oversees child welfare, youth prisons and mental institutions. The legislators cited “disturbing issues” at facilities, according to a letter obtained by the The Denver Post. Among the allegations, the letter cited overmedication of foster children and abuse of people with disabilities.

“The governor had received another letter April 30 from the state’s network of mental health clinics complaining about unresponsiveness and a lack of transparency from Bicha’s office,” the Post reported.

The letter of no confidence was “unprecedented” move.

Bicha was accused of neutralizing, obstructing and limiting the state’s Child Protection Ombudsmen’s authority, “sweeping investigative reports under the rug,” Miller Hudson wrote in a piece for Colorado Politics headlined, “Reggie Bicha: Warlock for the cheesehead coven at DHS.” It was titled as such because of Bicha’s proclivity for bringing over his old pals from Wisconsin’s DCF to work in Colorado Health Services. In so doing, Hudson reported, Bicha bent the state’s personnel rules.

Hudson wrote:

There are widespread complaints of intimidation, threats of retaliation and an atmosphere of fear. Bicha is criticized for an overreliance on the CSTAT system he has installed to measure employee performance. “We’ve lost sight of the trees, of our clients, for the forest” one worker reports. “I spend so much time filling out paperwork that I don’t really know what is going on here anymore…”

… But Bicha may be bulletproof for now. He knows where all the bodies are buried, literally… For the time being, it is doubtful his job will be in jeopardy. To paraphrase Lyndon Johnson, “It’s better to keep him inside the tent micturating out, than outside micturating in.”

Hudson’s prediction proved correct. Bicha expressed contrition, saying the letter of no confidence from the lawmakers got his attention. Hickenlooper stood by his man.

Now the early learning support company Bicha leads is on the cusp of winning a state contract to direct a program that directly impacts Wisconsin’s most precious asset: its youngest children. If the review upholds Shine’s proposal, it would begin what could amount to a five-year contract as soon as July 1.

The Supporting Families Together Association could still appeal if the review doesn’t find in its favor. Its members, like Family and Childcare Resources of Northeast Wisconsin, don’t know what the future holds for them if Shine is ultimately awarded the contract. Will there still be a place for these nonprofits under Shine’s new child care support umbrella?

Ultimately, they want to know why the Evers administration is making the change after years of successful partnerships on behalf of Wisconsin children.

“I’m really concerned about this proposal because so much of this is relationship-based. These people have known the providers for a long time, and it’s sad they may not be able to work with them again, “ Breese said.

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