Clues for fixing King County’s child care woes may be found in British Columbia

B.C. struggles with many of the same problems as Washington state.

This is the second report on a series on child care in Washington state. The first story can be found here, which details problems facing parents locally.

Vancouver, British Columbia’s child care issues look painfully similar to those experienced by parents in King County and across Washington state. British Columbia, Canada saw 16 years of worsening child care payoff fees, leaving child care unaffordable for the majority of people except the province’s wealthiest of families. A recent report from King County found that the median monthly cost for full-time infant care is more than $1,500, and many families pay more.

Even for those who could afford it, a long waitlist meant parents would spend months, and sometimes years, stuck in limbo before a spot would open up.

British Columbia was in the same situation as King County and Washington state until its last provincial election. And then something changed.

The coalition and the Early Childhood Educators of British Columbia released the Community Plan for a Public System of Integrated Early Care and Learning in 2011. It was inspired by the early public investments made in Quebec, but would take a different direction than what they’re conducting there now.

“Rather than people having some nebulous idea of what child care can be, we provided specifics about how you achieve it,” said Sharon Gregson, spokesperson with the Coalition of Child Care Advocates of British Columbia, adding that she is happy to come down and chat with Washington politicians about embracing their own reform.

Enough momentum was created across the province, Gregson said, and enough political space was produced for the government to embrace the child care initiative and create a demand for change. During the major 2013 election, child care became one of the top three issues and the British Columbia elected government party committed to implementing a $10-a-day plan.

Too late for baby Mac

For some, the examination into British Columbia’s child care dilemma comes too late.

The parents of 15-month old Macallan Wayne Saini both needed to work to support their family, Gregson explained. When baby Mac’s mother was going back to work, she was unable to find licensed group care and instead resorted to an unlicensed daycare operating out of a home in east Vancouver.

On Jan. 18, 2017, Mac’s mother, Shelley Sheppard, went to pick up her son. Outside were emergency responder vehicles and inside, she found her son lifeless on the floor.

It was later discovered that the operator, Yasmine Saad, was never fined for her three previous regulation violations for caring for too many children at other locations. Unlicensed providers are prohibited from caring for more than two children. In this instance, it was said that she had been caretaking for more, surpassing the two-child limit.

Mac’s parents filed a lawsuit in 2018, alleging that negligence played a role in the child’s death. In the lawsuit, they also claimed that the young boy, a day shy of 16 months, was left unattended and choked on an electrical cord. The case illustrates a tragic outcome of a child care system stretched too thin, squeezing parents between high costs and a lack of safe facilities for their children.

Affordability, quality and accessibility

Katrina Chen is British Columbia’s minister of state for child care. She said the province is focusing on three pillars in its approach to universal child care: affordability, quality and accessibility. British Columbia is served by a diverse array of child care providers, ranging from nonprofits and family centers to public facilities and indigenous communities. Implementing a universal approach to child care with diverse providers means developing a system that works for all of them.

“The prototype program is a way for us to learn how to work with different providers,” Chen said.

The $1 billion invested into child care more than doubled what British Columbia was spending before and is partially in response to parents not only spending more on child care, but on other necessities like rising housing costs at a time when wage growth is not keeping pace. Despite the $1 billion price tag, Chen said for every $1 they invest in early learning, there is a $6 return. This idea is supported by a 2017 study published by the Conference Board of Canada. This is a much higher investment than is being proposed even in child care bills currently making their way through Washington state’s Legislature.

“Especially in urban areas, metro Vancouver, the cost is quite a burden on most families,” Chen said.

Three-pronged approach

Three key programs are at work in British Columbia that could help parents.

The first is a key piece of legislation that provides a fee reduction in which the government gives providers $350 per child to use on child care. This passes the savings on to parents. Around 90 percent of child care providers use the program, representing roughly 52,000 providers, Chen said.

The second piece is providing additional benefits to families making up to $111,000 annually. The bar is set high because if one parent has to stop working to care for their child, it can significantly reduce a family’s income.

The final piece is the prototype sites, which cap total fees at $200 a month per child. Working together, the programs mean low-income families may pay little or no cost for child care. Currently, the prototype sites serve about 2,000 families across British Columbia

As with any public funding, the prototype program and investments into child care rely on political power to continue. Chen said she hopes the provincial government will continue to make child care a priority and hopes politicians will see both the personal and economic benefits of keeping parents, and especially women, in the workforce. The funding is also expected to stabilize turnover in child care employees, Chen said.

“It always takes the political will to make things happen,” she said. “Investing in children and families is really good for our economy.”

On the ground in British Columbia

On a warm early spring day, children at one of Kiwassa Neighbourhood House’s child care centers passed their time on an outdoor patio overlooking a horse racing track, framed by imposing snow-tipped mountains in the background. Others picked up bottles and bowls before watering flowers they had planted, and still others dug in sand pits, burying and recovering toys.

The children here likely have no idea they’re at a prototype site that the government of British Columbia created late last year to help ease skyrocketing child care costs in the province. At a select number of sites, parents only pay $10 a day, or about $200 a month for full-time child care, regardless of income levels. For those with lower incomes, the fee is further reduced.

The prototype sites are also proving to be popular among parents, said Mary Battle, the director of child care programs for Kiwassa Neighbourhood House. Battle and child care coordinator Tammy Maidment said they were accepted as a prototype site in November, and that the transition was painless. They still receive the same amount of funding, but instead of parents footing the entire bill, more of their funding comes from the province.

Before, some parents were using lines of credit to pay for child care, Maidment said. But becoming a prototype site allowed parents to keep working, take vacations and make needed upgrades to their homes, among other things. One family was even able to start a business because of the fee reductions.

“A lot of families say they feel like they won the lottery just getting into this center,” Maidment said. The fee reduction was unfathomable, bringing some parents to tears when they heard the news, which was announced at the center last year.

The current version of the Kiwassa center itself was created through a partnership in 2011. The city provided the land, and the nearby horse track (owned by Hastings Entertainment) agreed to partially fund the center — which is run by Kiwassa — if they continued early morning program for the staff’s children. Similar early morning programs had been offered at nearby Kiwassa centers.

While British Columbia is taking steps to create a universal child care model, the Canadian province of Quebec has had one for more than two decades. Quebec created universal child care with low fees in 1996, and has gone on to be a world leader in that department in the years since.

In a CityLab article, it was reported that Quebec women ages 26-44 had reached 85 percent participation in the workforce compared to 80 percent across Canada. Child care in Montreal is about $10 a day nearly everywhere, compared to costing roughly five times that much or more in other major Canadian cities. The report also noted that the economic benefit of more women participating has already paid for the investments made into early child care.

“It’s all about getting people back to work, getting women back in the workforce, and we’re moving that forward,” said Battle, summarizing what she had heard from parents.

A recent report from the King County Women’s Advisory Board found that full-time infant care cost is more than $1,500 monthly and many families pay more, with an average expenditure of roughly $24,000 annually.

Gregson of the Coalition of Child Care Advocates of British Columbia echoed that sentiment. She said the child care issue is around the healthy development of children, but also one of women’s equality. Women’s ability to partake in the workforce affects unemployment rates, and all of their economic analysis show women who can move off from social services can start paying taxes, helping to foot the cost of child care investment.

“This is a good story for the economy too,” Gregson said.

But there have been challenges. In the program’s first implementation year, Gregson said they’ve discovered a need to boost early child educator wages to attract more to the field, helping to offset the high demand for child care providers in the region.

The ultimate hope remains, however, that the province’s new child care program will be expanded to many other facilities after the prototype sites end in March 2020. Gregson said the next moves include creating enough spaces for children at facilities, alleviating the high demand for child care and eventually, one day, moving child care into the Ministry of Education — funding and developing centers the same way as schools, hospitals and public infrastructure.

Local and state efforts

While it’s unlikely that any solutions found in Canada will soon be directly imported to Washington, these solutions could offer insight for state lawmakers as they grapple with how to improve child care here.

Washington state Rep. Kristine Reeves (D-Federal Way) sponsored the Childcare Access Now Act, which passed the House on March 5 with 72 legislators voting to approve it and 24 voting against the bill. A companion bill is making its way through committees in the Senate and will need to pass by April 17. The legislation would create a goal of capping the cost of child care at seven percent of income by 2025, but before that can happen, the state needs more data, Reeves said.

Rep. Bob McCaslin (R-Spokane Valley), one member of a child care collaborative task force, voted against the bill. McCaslin opposes the study because he feels the root cause of high child care costs has already been determined to be government overregulation. His constituents in Spokane have vocalized the problems associated with the rising cost of business for private child care centers and the many criteria they have to meet.

Currently, there are about 500,000 children in Washington state ages 5 and younger. About one-fifth of the children receive state subsidized care, but Reeves said there’s little hard information on where the rest are receiving child care.

“The first question we have to ask is, what does the industry look like and where are they getting their care?” Reeves said.

The largest part of the bill will be to generate an industry-wide analysis. The second part will develop a plan to reach that seven percent cap. The bill will also address how to increase wages for child care workers without affecting supply and demand. After the state finishes gathering data, likely within a year of the bill passing, a work group will be formed to fully explore child care.

Reeves is also thinking about the same three pillars as Chen in British Columbia When the state implemented the Head Start program, it increased the quality of service, but rippled out into the market, drove up costs and limited availability of child care facilities and providers, Reeves said.

Alison Krutsinger of the Children’s Alliance said that between maintaining workforce costs and keeping child-to-provider ratios low in order to ensure quality and high facility costs, the price parents paid has ballooned.

“We know that child care costs are rising, and more and more families are paying higher percentages of their income,” Krutsinger said. “It is a market that has been stretched and tapped, and the costs continue to rise.”

Changing the conversation

Reeves said state lawmakers have been looking at a variety of child care systems to figure out what could work in Washington. The biggest challenge she’s been running into is finding ways to change the conversation around child care, moving it from being viewed as something that only affects parents to something that affects everyone.

“This isn’t just a moms thing, this isn’t just a single dads thing, this is ultimately a societal thing,” she said.

The Childcare Access Now Act comes with a roughly $1 million price tag. Reeves said to meaningfully address the problem, the Legislature will need to spend between $500 million to $1 billion, similar at least in that regard to British Columbia. It’s unlikely that the Legislature will provide funding if people don’t first view high costs and limited access to child care as a problem, but Reeves said she has reason to be optimistic.

“The difference in conversation from when I got here two years ago from the conversation we’re having today is drastic,” Reeves said. “I’m really excited about that conversation.”

North in British Columbia, Gregson offers some advice for King County and Washington. In order to create change, there has to be a demand for a better child care system. And support from the business community helps too.

Krutsinger said the bill currently moving through Washington’s Senate has successfully garnered support from the Association of Washington Businesses, which are key stakeholders. In the British Columbia child care community, businesses of many branches were finding it difficult to hire staff with their low unemployment rate. And often when women would leave to give birth, some wouldn’t return because they couldn’t acquire child care.

“The demand for a better child care system actually came from the business community as well as from families and civil society,” Krutsinger said. “That’s how bad the chaos is — businesses were giving advice to the government to make investments in child care a priority.”

And she has little doubts improvement can be made across the border.

“It’s doable everywhere,” Gregson said. “All it takes is political will.”

Four-year-old Emma Aasebo waters some of the plants outdoors at one of the Kiwassa Neighbourhood House’s child care centers. Ashley Hiruko/staff photo

Four-year-old Emma Aasebo waters some of the plants outdoors at one of the Kiwassa Neighbourhood House’s child care centers. Ashley Hiruko/staff photo