There’s a world of difference between babysitting and quality child care.
Aimee Reiser, of Spokane, sees it every day in her two oldest children: a daughter who’s thriving and a son who isn’t.
“He got kicked out all through kindergarten,” said Reiser, who promises not to make that mistake again – if she can afford it.
On a chilly morning last week, Reiser arrived at Parkview Early Learning Center with her 19-month-old son, Oliver.
It promised to be a day filled with learning, friendship and hope for the future.
“The structure has really helped my other kids develop,” Reiser said.
Dozens of other parents and children arrived between 8 and 8:30 a.m. Some lack cars, so they tromped through snowy sidewalks to reach Parkview, which is located on Division Street near NorthTown Mall.
Most of the 90-plus children are receiving help from Head Start or through the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program for low-income families.
They’re the lucky ones.
The network of quality child care – in Spokane, the state and the nation – is fraying at the edges. Some call it a national crisis.
In Washington, providers face rising minimum wages that have climbed from $9.47 per hour a few years ago to $13.50 by the end of this year. While they consider hiking costs to offset higher payrolls, subsidies that many low-income parents rely upon to pay child care costs have not kept pace.
Polled by the advocacy group Child Care Aware on how they will cope with the increases, 72 percent of providers are raising rates. About 44 percent will reduce hours and benefits for staff. Others will cut staff or serve fewer low-income families.
“The public doesn’t understand that we have an inflexible business model, with 60 to 80 percent of cost being wages and benefits,” said Luc Jasmin III, co-owner of Parkview.
“The low subsidy rates can’t keep up with the market, and private-pay families also are struggling,” Jasmin said.
Statewide, 22 percent of child care businesses have closed since 2011. In Spokane County, where 73 percent of children received some sort of financial aid in 2017, two dozen facilities closed last year. They served 476 children.
“Honestly, you go into this business with a sense of having a heart for people,” Jasmin said. “But the struggle is for resources. The public is so wrapped up in just trying to survive every day and pay bills.”
Meanwhile, the state is requiring more education for some child care employees. Workers will have five years to earn the minimum required number of credits, ranging from 12 for assistant teachers and those in similar positions, to 47 for center directors and assistant directors.
Home-care licensees will need an initial 12 credits followed by eight more credits, equivalent to a center’s “lead teacher” requirements.
That also will drive up costs, Jasmin predicted.
Child care has become among the biggest budget items for many families. According to a Child Care Aware report filed for 2017, Washington is the seventh-least affordable state for the care of a 4-year-old in a child care center, with costs taking 11.7 percent of median income for married couples and 39.1 percent of median income for single moms.
In Spokane County, the median cost for a center-based care program for an infant costs 20 percent of the average household wage.
Reiser has a bachelor’s degree, but says she couldn’t begin to afford the roughly $1,600 monthly costs for two children in licensed day care.
A few minutes earlier, single mom Jeanette Corrick brought in her son, Noah.
“It’s easy for him to make friends here,” Corrick said. “They have steady meal times and it’s a lot more trustworthy than hiring the (teen) down the street.”
It’s more enriching too.
State tax dollars support the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP), a pre-kindergarten program for low-income families with children ages 3 and 4.
Head Start is funded by the federal government and serves the same age group.
According to a 2017 study from the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, funding for early childhood education programs has closed the so-called kindergarten readiness gap.
Statewide, the study indicated that after two years of ECEAP, kindergarten readiness rates for 4-year-olds from low-income families more than doubled, from 31 percent to 67 percent.
Studies also show that beneficiaries of these programs are healthier when they begin kindergarten, less likely to repeat a grade in school, and more likely to graduate from high school and go on to college.
Last year, the Legislature added 1,000 more spots for the ECEAP program, but the Washington State Caseload Forecast Council estimates that nearly 4,000 more children would be able to participate if the state made more slots available.
Child care advocates are counting on passage of HB1344, which was introduced last month by state Rep. Kristine Reeves, D-Federal Way.
It broadly addresses access issues and would cap out-of-pocket child-care expenses at 7 percent of a family’s income.
It also would increase the Working Connections Child Care reimbursement rate to 75 percent of market rate to stabilize the child care market.
“I hear from parents and caregivers every single day about how real the childcare struggle is,” Reeves said in a press release. “Children need to be safe and to have enriching places to learn and grow, and access to high-quality childcare is a real lifesaver for working families.”
The bill’s future is uncertain; as of Friday, it had passed its first committee, and is in the Appropriations Committee, which has not yet had a hearing on it.
In the meantime, families and providers are managing to get by.
Marisa Beasley likes Parkview so much that she drives her three young children from Liberty Lake.
“It helps that I get some help from the state,” Beasley said. “Otherwise I don’t know what I would do.”
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.