© 2024 WEMU
Serving Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County, MI
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Washtenaw United: Childcare in crisis - Access to quality, affordable care can drive community equity

Children playing outdoors at Apple Playschools.
Erwin R. Arias-Hervert
Children playing outdoors at Apple Playschools.


Apple Playschools executive director Etta King Heisler
Jordyn Rozensky
Apple Playschools executive director Etta King Heisler

Etta was born and raised in Ann Arbor. She attended Brandeis University in Waltham, MA and worked in the Boston area for several years, but the Midwest has always been her true home. Her academic background and training is in education policy and nonprofit management. She has taught in summer camps, religious schools, preschools, afterschool programs, and adult education programs.

She participated in a year-long community organizing fellowship in 2013-2014 and grassroots relational community building is at the core of her leadership style.

After serving as the Director of Programs for the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum and Leslie Science & Nature Center in the early days of that merger, Etta became the Executive Director of Apple Playschools in November of 2019.

When she is not working, she enjoys cooking food for her friends and family, eating chicken tenders and watching movies, singing folk music around the campfire, and volunteering with kick-ass community organizations like Ele’s Place Ann Arbor and Bryant Community Center.


Apple Playschools

Ann Arbor SPARK: Livingston and Washtenaw Counties Regional Childcare Planning

MI Untapped Potential

A Systemwide Wage Scale to Address Michigan's Child Care Crisis

Concentrate Media: "Child care is expensive and understaffed – but a new Washtenaw County coalition aims to change that"

Detroit Free Press: "Struggling Michigan child care centers wave white flag as state invests in new facilities"


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And today, we're going to explore building community equity through childcare. Difficult task! I'm David Fair, and welcome to another edition of Washtenaw United. Did you know there's only one licensed childcare spot available for every seven children in need? Did you know that childcare workers' hourly pay is well below a living wage? Well, even if a spot opens up for kids, all too many families can't afford it. That lack of care has a tremendous economic impact locally and throughout the state. Our guest today is in the business and knows the challenges all too well. Etta King Heisler is executive director of Apple Playschools in Ann Arbor. And thank you so much for making time for us today.

Etta King Heisler: Thanks so much, David. I'm really glad to be here and talk about this important issue with the community.

David Fair: Is it fair to say the childcare system is broken?

Etta King Heisler: Yes, I think that's the lightest way to put it.

David Fair: The Livingston Washtenaw Regional Childcare Planning Coalition has recognized there are a number of issues in this system, and it's collected a vast amount of supporting data. Among the findings, most parents cannot afford to pay for childcare services that meet their needs, and those that work in the system don't make enough to live on. So, what would you characterize childcare services, an industry that is not only in crisis, but for those who need it and work in it are also in crisis?

Etta King Heisler: Yeah, I mean, I think that's definitely true. It's been a really difficult couple of years, especially for all of us, but especially for young families and for childcare providers who are working to support children and young families. We live in a society that's really not built around sharing the responsibility for caring for young children, caring for elders, caring for anyone that needs extra support. And it's been really, really challenging to navigate this period of time taking care of people who are most vulnerable in our community.

A child playing outdoors at Apple Playschools.
Erwin R. Arias-Hervert
A child playing outdoors at Apple Playschools.

David Fair: And Apple Playschools--you have raised wages for your workers 25%. Given the high cost of living in Ann Arbor, does that even meet minimum standard for a living wage?

Etta King Heisler: No. Unfortunately, we are still several dollars away from where we'd like to be in compensating our staff in terms of hourly wage, although we've made some additional improvements. We are now offering medical benefits to our staff at a 70 to 80% cost share. We provide flexible scheduling options. And we're really lucky to be able to offer two different ways for our staff to access tuition benefits to attend our program and make it more affordable for them. We have a regular tuition benefit for our staff where they receive 50% off tuition, but we're also members of an awesome new pilot program called TriShare here in the state of Michigan, where qualifying families can actually pay 30% of their tuition. We as the employer pay 30%. And then, the state pays 30%. So, for our staff members, most of our staff members who qualify for that program, they can even receive a further discount and get access to the kind of program that maybe their families wouldn't be able to access otherwise.

David Fair: Given relatively low wages and high level of responsibility, these added benefits are obviously really important. Is it because it's so difficult to retain quality staff and enough staff to give the care that children deserve?

Etta King Heisler: Yeah, I mean, one of the biggest challenges that childcare providers like us who operate childcare centers face is being able to compensate staff fairly while we meet the state requirements for child-to-teacher ratios. And so, what we struggle with is making sure that we're navigating this tension between what families are able to pay and what is reasonable and appropriate for our staff.

David Fair: We are talking with Etta King Heisler on 89 one WEMU's Washtenaw United. She is executive director of Apple Playschools in Ann Arbor. You are a nonprofit. Correct?

Etta King Heisler: Yeah. Apple Playschools became a nonprofit organization in 2014.

David Fair: So, if I'm a working, single parent and I need childcare for a full day, that's five days a week from 8:30 in the morning until 3:30 in the afternoon and I need that 48 weeks a year, based on your 2024 tuition rates, that's not feasible for a lot of folks. So, how do we get in to get the care our children need?

A parent with his child at Apple Playschools.
Erwin R. Arias-Hervert
A parent with his child at Apple Playschools.

Etta King Heisler: Yeah, I mean, it's a real challenge, especially here in Washtenaw County, where we have a big disparity already in economic opportunity and access to various resources. There's a variety of ways that families who qualify--low-income families--to get support from the state. But one of the biggest challenges that we see is that there just aren't enough spots available. And when families can't find a spot or can't afford a spot, they're piecing together opportunities for care with loved ones, co-mingling with another family to swap kids back and forth, or they're leaving the workforce entirely. And the challenge that we see for a lot of our families is that the people who are leaving the workforce, by and large, are women. Many of them are women of color who are not able to work to their full capacity. And it ends up further widening these gaps that we already see in gender disparity and racial disparity in terms of career growth and economic opportunity for women in the workforce.

David Fair: And if you take a look at those who are leaving the workforce and, depending upon unemployment and other social safety net resources in order to stay home with their child, that has rather adverse impact on the overall state economy, doesn't it?

Etta King Heisler: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I mean, I think the recent Chamber of Commerce report that came out in fall of 2023 reported that Michigan loses something like $2.88 billion in economic opportunity annually from lack of childcare. There was another report I read that just the lack of infant toddler care--so for kids up to 30 months old--nationally, we lose $122 billion a year. It's just wild. And when we think about the return on investment for investments in high-quality, early childhood education, that return on investment is typically maybe conservative estimates like $4 to $10 for every dollar invested, but more likely probably something like $7 to $12 for every dollar we invest. You think about what we're losing from lack of care in the billions, and if we could bring in just 1 billion of that and then reinvest that in early childhood education infrastructure, it could really transform opportunity for our communities.

David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And we're talking community equity and childcare with Etta King Heisler. She is executive director of Apple Playschools in Ann Arbor. So, again, you've been doing this for quite a while, and you have that view from the inside from your vantage point. What is the very first step that needs to be taken to address the childcare crisis, so that we work towards solution instead of just identifying problems?

Etta King Heisler: Yeah. You know, it's really hard and very complicated. I think the biggest thing that we need to think about is how all of the people in our community can work together at the local level, to think about what sort of changes can be made here in Washtenaw County, as well as in the state of Michigan. There are some states across the U.S. that are doing some interesting and innovative things. There are other countries who have figured out great solutions to this. We certainly don't need to reinvent the wheel, but every single person in our community definitely needs to be involved. Whether you have a young child or not, whether you work in early childhood or not, the childcare crisis is impacting all of us, whether we're seeing and having to cover extra at work because our colleagues and coworkers are out caring for sick kids, or having to reduce their hours because they don't have enough care, or whether we're seeing it impacts that come down the road--for example, increased caseloads in special education services in K-12 education and costs related to that because children didn't have access to early intervention services in their early childhood years.

David Fair: So, with all the hurdles to overcome, if you and I talk a decade from now, are we going to be talking about the same issues?

Etta King Heisler: I think that depends on how much our community is willing to put on the line to turn this around. We saw during the pandemic that investment in early childhood infrastructure can transform the way that the community is able to operate. It can transform opportunities for individual families, and it can really change things. During the COVID years, we'll call them, the federal government and the state government made historic investments in early childhood infrastructure that every single one of us as childcare providers used to reinvest in our communities by opening centers, keeping the sites we had open, increasing pay for our teachers, and keeping tuition for families as low as possible. And, at the end of 2023, all of that funding was stopped, which is essentially a divestment in early education infrastructure. So, the next year is really going to be make-or-break--it's an election year. It's an opportunity for people to be asking their local and national representatives what they're going to do about this: everything from changing municipal building code to make it easier for childcare centers to open and be zoned to thinking about how governments could share the cost of early childhood education, tuition or costs with employers, or incentivizing work in early education through tax programs. So, there's a lot of different options available, and the question is whether or not the broader community is going to show up and demand that, especially during an election year.

Storytime at Apple Playschools.
Erwin R. Arias-Hervert
Storytime at Apple Playschools.

David Fair: Well, after the November elections, let's talk again and see where your optimism lies.

Etta King Heisler: I would love that!

David Fair: He is Etta King Heisler, sharing her expertise on the challenges of a broken childcare system and is executive director of Apple Playschools in Ann Arbor. Now, you can learn more about Apple Playschools at Apple Playschools.org or by paying a visit to our website. We'll provide the link so you can easily find the information you're looking for. Washtenaw United is produced in partnership with United Way for Southeastern Michigan, and we bring it to you every Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.


Recently, Apple Playschools has received a $20,000 award from the 2024 cycle of United Way for Southeastern Michigan’s Opportunity Fund—a resource for local organizations and groups whose efforts address poverty, racism and trauma: root causes of systemic oppression that hold opportunity at bay for all people in Washtenaw County.

With this investment, Apple Playschools has implemented a plan for Teacher Professional Development and Advancement. This initiative will recruit and retain teachers, while helping them educate local children.

WEMU has partnered with the United Way for Southeastern Michigan to explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'

Non-commercial, fact based reporting is made possible by your financial support.  Make your donation to WEMU today to keep your community NPR station thriving.

Like 89.1 WEMU on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Contact WEMU News at 734.487.3363 or email us at studio@wemu.org

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
Related Content