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Patty Murray’s decades-long fight to transform U.S. child care system may finally become reality

UPDATED: Thu., May 6, 2021

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., speaks during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on the federal coronavirus response on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, March 18, 2021.  (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., speaks during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on the federal coronavirus response on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, March 18, 2021. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

WASHINGTON – When Sen. Patty Murray first got to Congress in 1993, one of a then-unprecedented seven women in the 100-member Senate, her colleagues weren’t interested in talking about child care.

“You mentioned it and nobody ever said, ‘Oh, OK, let’s work on that,’” said the Washington Democrat, a former preschool teacher who famously ran for the Senate as “a mom in tennis shoes.”

“It’s sort of been a silent epidemic for a very long time,” Murray said, because parents have feared raising the issue could hurt their careers. “Now that has changed, because people realize that if we want this to change, we need to speak up – all the way to the president of the United States speaking out publicly to the entire nation about it being a top priority.”

As a freshman senator, Murray championed the Family and Medical Leave Act, which guaranteed 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a new child or a sick relative. In the nearly three decades since, Congress hasn’t passed another major piece of family-related legislation.

Now, Murray – the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate and chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee – may have her best chance in decades to change that.

On April 22, she reintroduced the Child Care for Working Families Act, a bill that would use subsidies to raise child care workers’ pay while ensuring no family earning less than 150% of a state’s median income would spend more than 7% of its income on child care. Lower-income families would pay less or nothing at all.

As a candidate, President Joe Biden adopted Murray’s legislation as part of his platform, and on April 28 the White House rolled out the $1.8 trillion “American Families Plan,” which proposes spending $225 billion to lower the cost of child care while raising the wages of child care workers, though not on the scale of Murray’s bill, which would cost an estimated $600 billion over 10 years.

Murray’s bill would also fund Head Start programs and preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, and Biden’s plan calls on Congress to spend $200 billion to make preschool free, which, along with a proposal to make community college free, aims to bookend the standard K-12 education with four more years of free education.

“The problem is as simple as every family faces,” Murray said. “How do you go to work and make sure that your family is taken care of at the same time? Parents today have to work, and often are inhibited by the fact that they cannot find child care, or it costs too much, or the turnover is so great that they can’t find quality child care.

“This is a national issue that we need to address if we want families to succeed, if we want our communities to succeed, if we want our businesses to succeed and if we want our country to succeed.”

Like many of the proposals included in Biden’s “American Jobs Plan” and “American Families Plan,” the two wide-ranging legislative proposals the White House has rolled out in recent weeks, Murray’s vision represents a dramatic expansion of the federal government’s role in leveling the playing field. The two proposals would cost roughly $4 trillion combined.

Tim Benn, a former co-owner of Precious Little One’s Childcare in Spokane, said he decided to close the business in March 2020 partly because of growing government involvement in the sector, even without the massive federal spending Murray’s bill proposes.

“The more money government pumps in, the less private child care there is, because it’s more paperwork,” Benn said. “People don’t want to be part of a system, they want to serve families, so it pushes it more into a corporate culture, nonprofit or just plain government.”

“What we’ll see is, instead of child care being more personal and smaller classroom sizes, we’re going to see it transition to larger classroom sizes and more public-option that will end up being a lot more expensive,” he said. “That’s the direction we’re headed, and that’s why we got out of the business.”

Luc Jasmin III, owner of Parkview Early Learning Center in Spokane and president of the Washington Childcare Centers Association, said the cost of Congress doing nothing is also high. In 29 states, including Washington, the cost of a full-time child care center exceeds the average cost of in-state college tuition, according to a 2018 analysis by the nonprofit Child Care Aware.

“If you have two kids right now in our market in Spokane, you’re paying in many cases over $2,000 a month,” Jasmin said. “As a provider, we don’t love the fact that we have to look at a hardworking family and say, ‘You need to pay $2,000,’ but at the same time we have to pay the teachers.

“We have to meet somewhere, and this bill, it does that. It (lets) us make sure that we’re compensating the staff without having families pay (the equivalent of) two times a mortgage.”

The median wage for child care workers in 2019 was $14.57 an hour in Washington, second highest in the nation, but just $10.08 in Idaho, according to a report from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at UC Berkeley.

Jasmin also said investing in young children could pay dividends in the future, improving outcomes at other levels of education. According to a 2019 report from the Washington state superintendent’s office, less than a quarter of Spokane County youngsters were ready for kindergarten.

“How much money do you think that’s taking from our K-12 system?” he said. “What do you think that does to the dropout rate? What do you think that does to our incarceration rate and people going on to higher education? This has a ripple effect on the infrastructure.”

Murray said she also sees overhauling the nation’s child care system as a matter of national competitiveness. Child care costs less relative to income, and in some cases is free, in many other developed countries.

“We are seeing other countries who invest in child care, they have a workforce that is at work, focused on their work, not worried about how their kids are doing,” she said. “Their economies are moving forward and we are losing a competitive edge because we aren’t making these investments.”

Murray said she expects her bill to become part of a broader legislative package based on the priorities the White House has identified, but she wouldn’t detail a timeline for that legislation to come together. Republicans have so far rejected Biden’s proposals as too costly, and Democrats are gearing up to repeat the process they used to pass a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus and pandemic relief package in March with zero GOP votes.

That process, known as budget reconciliation, requires just 51 votes, allowing Democrats to bypass the 60-vote majority needed to pass most legislation in the Senate.

“The president has reached out to Republicans, he’s asking them for what they want to try to move that forward,” Murray said. “At the end of the day, if that doesn’t happen, we’ll have to move forward in a different kind of way under reconciliation.”

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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