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News / Northwest

How child care fared in this year’s Washington state legislative session

By LAUREL DEMKOVICH, Washington State Standard
Published: March 15, 2024, 8:12pm

Washington lawmakers this year funneled more money and support toward the state’s struggling child care system, looking to give providers a boost and expand access to day care and pre-K programs for families.

Some of that money will go to expand mental health consultations for infants and toddlers, increase rates for providers caring for infants and add grants for early learning center construction and renovation.

The investments were stronger than advocates had expected going into a 60-day session where lawmakers were adjusting the state budget, not writing a spending plan from scratch, said Genevieve Stokes, director of government relations at Child Care Aware of Washington.

“We were excited the Legislature did what they could and really did demonstrate their commitment to continuing a foundation toward universal care,” Stokes said.

But Stokes and others also emphasized there’s a ways to go for the state to shore up support for providers and ensure that more families have access to care.

New funding

The latest funding follows work in recent years on the landmark Fair Start for Kids Act, which focused on expanding access to child care across Washington. Despite those efforts, providers still say wages, benefits and other support in the sector are short of what’s needed to retain workers and meet demand.

One of the biggest pots of added money will go toward rate increases for providers caring for infants and for children covered by a state subsidy program for lower-income families.

Lawmakers set aside $5.6 million to increase rates for providers caring for infants, which is often more expensive than caring for older children because it requires more space and more teachers per student. That money will increase rates from $90 per month, per child to $300 for providers caring for infants through the state’s Working Connections Child Care program, a voucher program for families that meet income eligibility guidelines and other criteria.

Another $8.3 million will go to providers caring for 3- and 4-year-olds through the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program. This program involves contracted pre-kindergarten slots that the state pays for. The money will increase rates by 5% for full-day providers and 9% for providers offering care before and after regular school hours.

There’s also $772,000 for bonuses for providers who offer care outside of a traditional 9-to-5 setting. Though the increase is encouraging, Leigh Sims, of Child Care Aware Washington, said more will be needed to ensure providers are making a living wage.

Lawmakers also set aside $1.75 million to expand infant and early childhood mental health consultation, which provides support for children with behavioral health issues and for providers who may need help caring for them.

At any given time, Holding Hope, one of the state’s leading programs for this work, has a waitlist of about 100 providers who need mental health support for a child in their care. This funding could help hire about 11 more consultants and shorten that waitlist, Janet Fraatz, director of infant and early childhood mental health consultation at Child Care Aware of Washington, said.

Another large portion of the money is going to help the state expand its early learning facilities grant program, which assists with construction or remodeling projects.

In the most recent funding round that opened last fall, the Department of Commerce gave out $42 million for 42 projects, but Ruth Kagi, former state representative and child care advocate, said there were many more applications requesting money.

The Legislature set aside another almost $7 million for competitive and minor renovation grants to help address the eligible applicants who did not receive money in last year’s funding round.

Kagi told the Standard last month that the funds will be distributed across the state to help the areas most lacking child care. The grants have helped create 17,000 slots since it began in 2017.

“We have to build capacity,” Kagi said.

Tax breaks and fingerprinting

Along with funding, the Legislature passed a number of policy improvements for child care providers.

A bill from Sen. Claire Wilson, D-Auburn, will expand business and tax exemptions for child care providers who care for children up to age 12 or up to age 18 if the child has a special need or is under court supervision. The current exemption only applies to providers who care for children up to eight years old.

Wilson said the modest exemption could mean the difference for a provider staying open.

“At a time when child care is one of the biggest concerns for working parents, we need more childcare slots, not less,” Wilson said.

Another bill will require the Department of Children, Youth and Families to provide fingerprinting services for providers in at least seven of their offices. The proposal is an attempt to make background check services more accessible and speed up hiring for providers.

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“This bill won’t solve all of the problems with child care, but it will be a meaningful step forward to help people get through the background check faster, so they can get into the classroom faster,” bill sponsor Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said when the bill passed the Senate.

‘An expensive business’

Although this year’s investments will help, Washington’s child care system is still struggling. Low pay and lacking benefits often lead to more staff turnover, which means fewer slots.

The state estimates about 280,000 children need care but only 28% of them have access to a licensed provider. At the same time, the average annual cost in 2022 for sending a toddler to day care was about $14,000 at a child care center, according to a report last year from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

“Providing high quality child care is an expensive business that isn’t penciling out for providers or families right now,” Stokes said.

Stokes said this year was an “incremental step,” but there’s a lot of work left to do to solve Washington’s child care shortage and reduce the strain on providers.

Looking toward the next session, Stokes said advocates are looking to increase the rates for those caring for children after hours, to continue implementing the Fair Start for Kids Act and to work on a plan to make child care affordable for all families at no more than 7% of their income while paying providers a living wage.

The Washington State Standard is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet that provides original reporting, analysis and commentary on Washington state government and politics. We seek to keep you informed about Washington’s most pressing issues, the decisions elected leaders are making, how they are spending tax dollars and who is influencing public policy. We’re part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.