Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane City Councilwoman Kate Burke dreams big on child care, explores problem of declining access

Rebecca Lee, owner of Green Gable Children’s Learning Centers, smiles at preschooler Victoria Brady, left, as Brady shows Lee some artwork on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019, in Mead, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

When she first re-entered the workforce as a single mother, Bailey Covieo received state assistance to help with care for her young child.

But a year later, a bump in pay pushed her beyond the maximum income threshold to receive state assistance. Just like that, what should have been a point of career progress was making child care unaffordable.

“I have no choice,” Covieo said. “I am the sole income earner for my household. I have no choice but to go to work.”

In search of a city policy to improve access to child care – and in response to a seemingly endless number of stories like Covieo’s – Spokane City Councilwoman Kate Burke has launched a working group that includes families, child care providers, child care workers and other stakeholders.

The group held its first meeting last week and had about 50 people in attendance, according to Burke.

“The big things I took away were the quality and the quantity are the big issue in our community, and cost obviously,” Burke said.

Though it remains to be seen exactly what shape a proposal will take, the group’s goal is clear: every family in Spokane should have access to early child care.

Burke is prepared to ask voters for funding support, perhaps as early as 2021.

“So far, what I’m gathering is a lot of people in our city find this to be a priority – people without kids and with kids – because they know we have this hard data behind youth and how we educate them,” Burke said.

Burke’s interest in the topic dates back to her time as a legislative aide for state Sen. Andy Billig, who has made child care policy a priority during his time in the state House.

“I started to understand that this is where we should be directing our attention as elected officials,” Burke said.

According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, more than 1 million new neural connections form every second in the brain of a child in its first few years of life.

“Their outlook on life and how the world perceives them is already defined before they go into kindergarten,” said Luc Jasmin, owner of Parkview Early Learning Center in north Spokane and president of the Washington Childcare Centers Association.

The central barriers to access families encounter are quality, cost and availability.

Already operating on thin margins, child care centers are facing the consequences of an increase in the minimum wage from $9.47 per hour a few years ago to $13.50 by the end of 2019. According to the nonprofit Child Care Aware of Washington, 72 percent of child care providers surveyed said they planned to raise costs for families to offset the increase in minimum wage.

Not only is the cost of child care burdensome for parents, wages are hardly enough to make a living for those who provide it. Child care workers often make minimum wage or only slightly more, leading to high rates of turnover.

“The turnover is bad for quality, but it’s also really devastating for children and families. Who is helping raise my child? It’s somebody different all the time, and children need to feel safe and secure in their environment before they can learn,” said Patty Shastany, incoming director of the Community Building Children’s Center.

Part of the reason child care is so expensive, despite the low pay for workers, is because the ratio of staff to children needs to be low. That cost is passed on to families, because basically every other corner has already been cut.

“When you break down the coverage that you would need, it adds up. Even at a very low wage, it quickly becomes a lot of money,” Shastany said.

Washington is already the third most expensive state for care of an infant in home family care programs, and the sixth most expensive for care in centers, according to the nonprofit.

To qualify for a state Working Connections Child Care subsidy, a family must earn less than 200% of the federal poverty level. More than half of the families seeking a referral to a child-care provider through Child Care Aware were looking for a facility that accepts subsidies.

Even if a family can afford quality child care, there’s no guarantee that a spot will be available. Pregnant mothers sign up for care for their unborn child, only to find themselves waitlisted. Others locate the right fit, but it’s a long drive from home.

Jasmin said one family sends half of its children to a facility in Liberty Lake and the other half to his center in Spokane.

“We need to keep on talking about this, and something needs to happen,” Jasmin said. “If the funding stream made sense, I could open up another facility right next door and be filled by the end of the week.”

Washington has lost a net of more than 1,100 child care providers, even as the overall child care capacity has increased by about 8% in the past five years, according to a report on 2018 released by Child Care Aware of Washington earlier this year.

In Spokane County alone, two dozen facilities closed last year.

Covieo, an administrator of a Facebook group for single parents in Spokane, noted that many parents work irregular hours in the hospitality or health care industry, when child care is less readily available. The facilities with a reputation for quality, naturally, are the hardest to get into.

“I had two day cares before the one I’m at now, and I had to commute 30 minutes just because they had an opening,” Covieo said. “You make it work.”

So why should someone who is not directly affected by declining child care capacity – such as a single, childless 24-year-old man or a 65-year-old retiree – support community investment in child care? Advocates believe that child care is like any other piece of city infrastructure: it benefits everyone, even those who don’t utilize it.

“It’s essential for every part of our community,” Shastany said. “Parents need to have a safe nurturing space for their children so they can go to work and be there and be productive. The idea that businesses, and we as a community, all invest in this is part of our infrastructure. It’s as essential as our roads, our police, our fire department, everything we as a community invest in.”

Shastany advocates for funding at every level of government, including the city.

“Until we can actually pay for the quality that all children deserve, then it’s not going to be a viable business and we’re not going to keep the kind of workforce we need,” Shastany said. “People say it’s not just money – well, in many ways, this is. We know how to do quality, we know what those elements are, there are some really great examples of people who are doing that, but without the proper funding, we can’t build something.”

With Burke launching the working group, Covieo wanted to ensure the voices of single parents are heard.

“I just want the community to come together and do our best to create sustainability for the workforce, providers and families,” she said.

Jasmin shares that outlook.

“The reason I’m really optimistic about this workgroup is it really will help come up with some concrete solutions for access and affordability,” Jasmin said.

Burke’s next step is to meet with a smaller group and go over data, as well as research about other cities that have implemented child care initiatives.

“Then we’re going to get all that data, compile it, bring it back to the bigger group and figure out direction as a bigger group,” she said. “It’s going to take a really long time, but I’ve got a motivated group.”