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Child Care: Can we save the sector?

In Washington State and across the nation, the child care industry is on the brink of collapse. Child care providers are grappling with a perfect storm of challenges, from burdensome regulations to economic fallout from the pandemic. This is forcing many child care providers to close their centers or sell their businesses, leaving families without care options for their kids.

Economic Impacts: Decreased Funding, Increasing Costs

As the public health crisis related to the COVID-19 pandemic is declared over, federal and state governments have lifted emergency mandates. Unfortunately, many small businesses, such as those in the child care industry, are still suffering from the economic impacts of the pandemic. Many had to temporarily close centers or operate at reduced capacity. And, as pandemic-era funding dries up, child care providers are facing financial shortfalls, unable to balance budgets strained by increased costs without increased income. Inflation has taken a toll on every center, affecting everything from food and supplies to insurance premiums.

Mounting Challenges: Licensing and Regulations

On top of economic concerns, child care providers in Washington State face a cumbersome and onerous licensing process. The task of becoming licensed is daunting, and, once licensed, providers face increasing government control over their operations. Agencies like the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) currently influence hiring decisions, dictate cleaning supplies, and limit autonomy in determining the number of children that can be safely accommodated. Many of these mandates are unrelated to the health and safety of the children served and are made without input from the child care providers doing the work. To make matters worse, the governing bodies do not offer corresponding funding meaning the centers need to come up with the money to cover the costs of these superfluous mandates.

Staffing Challenges

Finding dedicated staff is an ongoing challenge for child care providers, and one that started well before the pandemic. It is difficult for centers to attract and retain qualified and dedicated employees without the budget to offer competitive wages and benefits. In addition, regulating bodies continue to raise credential requirements without offering the funding to support adequate staff compensation.

Shifting the Burden

The cost of care continues to rise, and federal funding is disappearing. Providers need to meet ever-increasing unfunded mandates, offer competitive wages to attract and retain staff, and cover cost increases fueled by inflation. Therefore, they have no choice but to raise tuition fees to avoid shuttering their businesses. Sadly, this places a greater financial burden on families who are already struggling to afford quality child care.

A Small Step

The Fair Start for Kids Act (FSKA) Temporary Licensing Subcommittee, under the purview of the Early Learning Advisory Council (ELAC) was created to address some of the challenges facing the industry. Comprised of child care providers, the subcommittee submitted a set of recommendations to remove barriers to entering the child care profession. The recommendations are centered on four overarching themes:

  1. Translation, interpretation, and language access
  2. Transparency and trust
  3. Overregulation
  4. Compensation/provider supports

DCYF staff are responding to the recommendations in the report and tracking their progress on the FSKA tracker. This is a step in the right direction because it gives voice to people doing the work. However, as recommendations are reviewed, child care centers continue to suffer the consequences of the current licensing rules and economic conditions.

A Call to Action

Child care is not just struggling, it’s on the verge of collapse. The child care sector needs federal and state legislators to:

  1. Invest significantly in the child care sector, recognizing its vital contribution to the economy. This investment can include a mix of grants, low-interest loans, and market rate reimbursement for children receiving public funding for early education.
  2. Provide thriving wages to those working closely with our children, based on calculations such as the MIT Living Wage calculator.
  3. Remove background check barriers, such as requiring new hires to be cleared prior to working at a site and return to a system where staff can begin supervised work or invest in a background check system with rapid (24- to 48-hour) results.

Child Care: A Public Good.

Child care is a “public good” because it plays a pivotal role in supporting families and our economy as a whole. A sustainable, affordable, and reliable child care industry benefits everyone – children, families, businesses, communities, and the economy. However, the burden of sustaining this essential service currently falls almost solely on the shoulders of families and child care staff. Significant investments and regulatory reforms are urgently needed at both the state and federal levels to support and sustain the child care sector.

The work of child care enables ALL other work – without it, everyone will feel the impact.