OLYMPIA – When Andrea Estes moved from Seattle to Spokane two years ago, finding child care was almost impossible.
There were zero spots for her son, who was younger than 1 at the time, giving her no choice but to leave her full-time job and stay at home to take care of her kids.
A few months later, after weekly phone calls to centers nearby, she found part-time availability for her son, and a three-week program for her daughter.
“It was pure luck,” she said.
Now, she pays what she calls “mortgage rates” for both of her children.
State and federal support for child care centers have increased access to many families and kept a number of providers open, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
But even historic state investments into the system have not been enough to support the child care workers, who often leave the profession for higher paying jobs with better benefits.
Fewer staff means fewer children who can be served by them.
According to the Department of Children, Youth and Families, more than 317,000 children across the state need child care, and only about 105,000 are enrolled in a licensed child care program or preschool. In Spokane County, only 38% of children who need child care are being served.
“The way our systems are set up are not subsidized for staff who do amazing work and are fundamentally our co-parents,” Estes said. “They deserve quality wages and benefits.”
The Legislature this year will decide how to fund statewide programs in all sectors, such as housing, education and health care, but child care advocates are pushing for additional funding to assist their workforce – something they deem essential for getting the state’s economy back on track after the pandemic.
Historic investments in recent years still not enough
Two years ago, the state Legislature passed a historic investment into child care and early learning with the Fair Start for Kids Act.
The investment over the past two years, funded in part by the controversial capital gains tax, brought access for more than 8,200 new families, and offered some supports for providers through increased rates for state subsidies and implementing a health care program.
The new investment was a huge amount of money, said Rep. Tana Senn, D-Mercer Island, but it’s still a drop in the bucket.
Since 2021, providers in Washington also received more than $386 million in federal and state grants, including almost $98 million in Eastern Washington alone.
Still, child care deserts, where there are no centers, exist throughout the state, and centers that do exist have open classrooms as they can’t hire or retain staff.
“We need to make sure folks don’t get complacent and think Fair Start for Kids fixed it all, because it didn’t,” said Rep. Kristine Reeves, D-Federal Way.
Previous investments into child care have been great for access, said Ryan Pricco, director of policy and advocacy at Child Care Aware, but it has not done enough for the workforce, which is primarily women of color.
“We should be investing in them just as much, if not more, than families,” he said. “But instead, our reality is the vice versa of that.”
Child care is experiencing a “really profound workforce issue and workforce stabilization crisis,” said Maggie Humphreys, senior campaign director at advocacy group MomsRising.
A lack of staff has led to a number of closures and classrooms taking fewer children than they actually have the space for, Humphreys said.
Legislature looks to address workforce this year
Pricco said the Legislature should think about funding child care in three main buckets: improving wages and access to health care and benefits; making pathways to professional development more equitable; and increasing resources, such as substitutes or extra staff.
“Teachers are leaving because they don’t have the supports they need,” said Kerra Bower, who runs Little Scholars Development Center in Spokane. “They don’t have the opportunities to train and get the help they need.”
One bill the Legislature is looking at this year focuses on the access piece, allowing families with children who have had a parent or guardian in the past six months in therapeutic court to be eligible for state subsidies. It also eliminates immigration status as part of applications for subsidies when determining a child’s eligibility.
But the bill also helps providers by increasing eligibility for state subsidies to include child care employees who have incomes up to 85% of the state median income, and waives their copays.
Pricco said this is a big recruitment tool, because educators who have young children themselves would be able to get back to work.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Claire Wilson, D-Auburn, is awaiting a vote on the Senate floor.
Another bill would prohibit homeowners’ associations from banning child care programs in homes in their neighborhoods. The bill passed unanimously in the House and is awaiting a committee vote in the Senate.
The Legislature is also looking at a bill to provide permanent background check and license fee waivers for providers, something that started during the COVID-19 pandemic .
The bill is awaiting a vote on the Senate floor.
Another proposal would require the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to establish a child care worker pilot program for students who want to work in early childhood development. It also would establish a grant program to create new child care and early learning programs.
The proposal, sponsored by Senn, would attempt to build a pipeline for child care providers from high school.
Shannon Edwards, who has taught at Journey Discovery Center in Spokane for two years after graduating college, said many young people view child care and early learning as a temporary career, partly because of the low compensation and few benefits.
She said turnover is a huge issue, but consistency in teachers is important for children.
“Children are so impressionable,” she said. “Any experience they have will impact how they learn and the way they view life.”
Senn’s bill was awaiting a vote out of the Appropriations Committee but did not receive one by Friday’s deadline. That means it likely won’t be considered again this year, although parts of it could end up funded in the final budget.
Most of the bills still making their way through this year are backed by Democrats and have received some pushback from Republicans.
There were a number of Republican-sponsored bills this session, including one that would waive requirements for obtaining an Early Childhood Education certificate if a person reads a new handbook. But most GOP-backed bills focused on child care did not make it past the most recent bill cutoff, meaning they are likely dead this year.
Republican leaders in both the House and the Senate agree that child care is one of the biggest issues this year, but say the state needs to do less over-regulating of the system and more investing in accessibility.
The best thing the state can do this year is make sure it is paying its fair share for child care, Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, said.
“We’ve had some good intentions to improve quality, but those have made it less and less accessible to the average Washington family,” Braun said.
House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox said the current regulations and fees for providers make it more expensive for everyone and cause problems across the board.
Bower said providers need support for teacher retention and those already in the classroom more than anything.
Allowing for professional development, mental health resources and better pay and benefits are essential to keeping teachers in the field, she said.
Advocates push for long-term solution
Pricco said he is trying to work toward a reality in which the state invests more of its budget into providers, but that could take years.
Advocates are pushing this year for funding in the budget that would allow the Department of Children, Youth and Families to work with advocates, providers and families to come up with a long-term funding plan to have “a truly thriving system,” Pricco said.
The money, which Reeves is championing, would require the department to recommend a plan to provide living wages and benefits for providers, and provide that plan to the Legislature, which would make the final call.
Reeves’ long-term goal is universal child care in Washington and an early -learning model by 2040, but she recognizes that’s a big ask and could cost a lot of money.
A long-term plan likely will take a new revenue source, which is one of the hardest things to do politically, Pricco said.
“Once we have a plan, we robustly advocate for it,” Pricco said. “We need to make the case that finding that revenue … in the long term could make the state much more financially solvent and be a huge boost.”
Reeves said the state could look at reallocating resources from “back-end issues” such as juvenile justice, behavioral health or K-12 education into child care and early learning on the front end. In the end, helping children with brain development early on could help the state save money, she said.
“We can either prevent and provide resources to families early and get a better return on investment, or we can wait until families struggle,” Wilson said. “The outcome is we’re helping kids and families on the other side, and it’s always costing us money.”
Current funding for the Fair Start investments remains in question as the constitutionality of the capital gains tax is awaiting a decision from the state Supreme Court. If it is deemed unconstitutional, the state will have to find a way to make up for that revenue.
Child care essential for economic recovery
Unless the state is finally willing to pay child care educators a living wage, they will continue to lose talented and credible staff to higher-paying jobs at places like McDonald’s or Starbucks, Humphreys said.
If the state wants to fully recover from COVID-19 and sustainably grow, child care needs to be a priority, she said.
“Child care is at the core of our workforce infrastructure, but it is very seldomly recognized as such,” she said.
Families need access to safe, quality child care near their homes, Estes said, and that will only come from the state prioritizing its funding.
“It’s really disheartening when you hear people debate whether or not there’s value in investing in child care,” Estes said.
But the importance of funding child care is gaining traction.
For too long, child care was a “silent issue” for families who didn’t feel like they could openly talk about it with their employers, Senn said. But the pandemic put the need for accessible, safe child care on top of everyone’s minds.
“It just became this a-ha moment,” she said. “I really think there’s just been a huge shift in understanding.”
For the providers who choose to stay in the field, relief can’t come fast enough.
Edwards said she got into child care because she watched her mom, who owns a center, make a difference in children’s lives. But she’s also seen her mom provide quality care at the expense of her own income.
“I do hope to stay in early learning, so I can continue to be an advocate,” she said.
Despite the struggles the child care sector is facing, Bower wants to stay in the field because she knows the importance of helping kids, especially children of color and those from disadvantaged backgrounds, become ready for kindergarten .
“Education is the one thing that no one can take away from you,” she said. “I believe I’ve found my life calling, and I want to nurture that in others.”