OLYMPIA — Kerra Bower started providing child care out of her home more than a decade ago, and she learned firsthand how difficult it was to be a provider.
With a business model that many say doesn't work, low subsidy rates make for high costs for staffing and little access to health care and other benefits. The burnout rate for employees leads to high turnover, which can be bad for the kids. Still, Bower found a way to open Little Scholars Development Center in Spokane because she knew how much the community needed more child care centers.
But the COVID-19 pandemic has magnified those pre-existing issues, and many providers are hoping the state will soon provide more relief and create a more accessible business model.
"It all starts in early childhood education," Bower said. "So why are we not paying these teachers what they're worth when they're so vital to the success of our nation?"
It's a question many legislators have been asking for decades, as child care deserts continue to grow across the state.
According to a 2018 report from the Center for American Progress, 51% of Americans live in a neighborhood classified as a child care desert. A child care desert is defined as a ZIP code with at least 30 children under the age of 5 and either no child care centers or three times the number of children under 5 than spaces in centers. According to 2019 data from Child Care Aware of Washington, there were only enough spots in Washington child care centers for 49% of children under five. That number is likely increasing with closures due to the pandemic.
"What we realized is child care was in a crisis before the pandemic, and now is on the brink of collapse," said Auburn Democratic Sen. Claire Wilson. Wilson, along with Rep. Tana Senn, D-Mercer Island, has proposed a sweeping legislative package this session aimed at addressing these issues.
The Fair Start for Kids Act is made of two companion bills in each chamber. It proposes the following:
* Increasing child care subsidy rates.
* Expanding health care access to providers.
* Reducing copays for families who use Working Connections Child Care.
* Increasing eligibility for Working Connections Child Care and Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program.
* Providing capital investments for child care facilities.
* Creating equity grants and dual language supports.
* Expanding a statewide mental health consultation system for child care.
Wilson and Senn worked throughout the interim to draft companion legislation that creates a coordinated system of support for families and providers.
Both chamber's bills have had public hearing in committees in the last two weeks, and both are scheduled for committee votes next week.
The bill is two-sided, Wilson said. It will support families through lower copays, increased eligibility for programs such as Working Connections Child Care that offer child care to low income families, and elimination of subsidy work requirements for parents pursuing a two-year degree or apprenticeship.
"We've supported the family side for years," Wilson said, "but we haven't really thought about or looked at child care as business."
Currently, 1% of the state's budget is spent on early learning. Wilson and Senn want to improve that number and create a new account to be used only for child care and early learning purposes.
When looking at COVID-19 recovery, making child care more affordable is a priority for both Republicans and Democrats. In a proposed COVID-19 emergency relief package that lawmakers want to pass in the next few weeks, Democrats want to spend $50 million for grants for child care businesses.
In a report done by the Washington State Senate Special Committee on Economic Recovery, the bipartisan committee made reducing barriers to child care a high priority recommendation. In his proposed budget, Gov. Jay Inslee wants to spend $2.2 million on personal protective equipment for child care centers, $29 million on a four-year health care insurance program for child care employees, $9 million to expand broadband access and $39.7 million to reduce the copays for families in the Working Connections Child Care program, among other goals.
But how exactly the state would fund long-term programs included in the Fair Start for Kids Act is yet to be decided as the Legislature works to pass a budget for the next biennium.
Pandemic exacerbated existing struggles
If you live on the outskirts of Spokane, Luc Jasmin, owner of the Parkview Early Learning Center in Spokane, said it can be very difficult to find child care. It isn't uncommon for parents to wake up early in the morning to drop their children off at one center and drive across town to drop an older child off at another.
"Surplus is not an issue, especially here," he said.
One of the biggest issues that child care providers face is the state's subsidy rate.
For providers who accept children using subsidies, the state pays for only a portion of the actual cost. Currently, the state determines the average cost of child care for a certain age in a certain area of the state and subsidizes 65% of those costs. This bill would increase that to 75% by July 1 of this year and 85% by July 1, 2023.
The subsidy rate is often lower than what a provider charges parents who don't use subsidies. Providers cannot charge parents the difference between the subsidy and their private rate, so providers often lose money by accepting children on subsidies.
It can cost the provider more money than if they were to take a child for private pay, Senn said.
In Spokane County, the daily base subsidy rate for toddlers in a full-day licensed care center is $42.32, the preschool full-day rate is $38.32 and the school age full-day rate is $27.91, according to the Department of Children, Youth and Families. Those numbers change depending on the type of center.
Katie Jessop, co-executive director of GLOW Children Early Learning Center in Spokane, said her center primarily serves the children of students at Lumen High School in Spokane. Almost all of their children use subsidies, and because the rate is so low, it can make it very difficult to fund the business needs of the center.
Many providers have opted out of offering subsidized care, Bower said. Those who do understand the need for it in the community, but it can make it difficult to run a quality facility.
This bill would increase the subsidy rate from the 65th percentile of market to the 75th percentile by July 1, 2021, and 85th percentile by July 1, 2023. It would also call for the creation of a new estimate model to recommend subsidy rates in the future.
An increase in the subsidy rate would help many providers be able to pay their staff a liveable wage, Jasmin said. So many of his employees are living paycheck to paycheck, and the pandemic has only made their stress worse.
When many providers struggle to pay their staff, it leads to high turnover in staffing, which Senn said can be bad for child development.
In early learning, people dedicate their lives to teaching a certain age group and they're not making much more than minimum wage and often in positions where businesses can't offer them benefits, Jessop said.
"We have high expectations on us because we know the value of the work and what we are contributing to the community but have significantly less resources than other areas of education," Jessop said.
During the pandemic, many child care providers have found ways to stay open, caring for children of essential workers, including health care workers who are exposed to COVID-19 everyday. And yet, many child care providers don't have health care.
Bower, who is unable to provide health care for her staff, said her employees are now caring for children whose parents are consistently around people who have COVID-19, and social distancing can only go so far.
"You can put as many safety precautions in as you want, but when a toddler needs love, a toddler needs love," she said.
Improving child care improves equity
Legislators hope that improving child care quality across the state, economic and educational outcomes would improve for all providers and children.
According to 2019 data from the Center for the Study of Child Care Development, most early care and education providers are women, and 40% are women of color.
Women also have been disproportionately hurt by the pandemic, as many have lost jobs or left their jobs to stay home and take care of their children. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. economy lost 140,000 jobs in December, most of whom were women.
"Women really help our economy," Jasmin said, "And we need them to continue their work."
Senn and Wilson's plan would create equity grants and dual-language supports to providers who may need them. Improving access to child care could help to better prepare students who are disproportionately affected by educational disparities. Child care plays a critical role for all children, so everyone needs access to it, Wilson said.
"We have to look at those furthest from opportunity," she said.
If early learners don't have access to quality child care or preschool, Senn said it can be really hard to catch up and become ready for kindergarten.
Jasmin said he appreciates the grant plan, which would provide actual dollars to providers who need it because "we do have inequities in our system."
Bower said a deeper discussion still needs to be had about how to better prepare early learners who often face disparities for K-12 and beyond.
"We need to recognize our biases and how they are playing a role in the disparities, specifically for black students," Bower said.
Legislation that helps could pass this year
A lot of these legislative plans cost money, and because the state is already struggling with budget constraints for the next two bienniums, investing this much in child care might not be possible right now.
The House bill has 36 other co-sponsors, and the Senate bill has 16 other co-sponsors, all of whom are Democrats.
Still, those on both sides of the aisle have agreed to prioritize child care, although not necessarily this slate of proposals.
Sen. Shelly Short, R-Addy, who was a part of the Senate's COVID economic recovery committee, said she made sure child care was a high priority in their recommendations, which came out earlier this month. Families need to be able to make choices, she said, and the state should help provide flexible options for child care. Funding is a part of that but so is the regulatory framework, she said.
Investing in child care now would save the state money later, Senn said.
Working parents often lose money each year because they cannot find child care, which leads to a loss statewide, Senn said. The state doesn't need to invest a lot of money to make the child care system work, she added, and anything invested now will prevent having to pay more in the future.
COVID-19 has brought the issue of child care to the forefront for many people, Senn said. It's common for kids to show up in the background of Zoom calls while parents are now suddenly in charge of working and watching their children at once. Because of that, Senn said there is a lot of support for improving the child care system.
And providers continue to urge legislators for better support.
"I would ask anyone to tell me what our state looks like without child care," Jasmin said. "How would our teachers go teach? How would our health care workers go to work? How is our economy going to function and run without child care?"