Long before the global pandemic, the United States had woefully underinvested in the child care industry. The government directs only a small percent of funding toward child care, compared with the whole U.S. education system, according to Ryan Pricco, the director of Policy & Advocacy at Tacoma-based nonprofit Child Care Aware Washington.
“Child care educators themselves make less money than parking lot attendants and pet groomers. They rank in the third percentile of all occupational wages in Washington,” Pricco said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has acted as a catalyst to expose how vulnerable the child care industry is, but it has also pushed politicians to pass stimulus funding both federally and within their states.
“We saw $50 billion put into child care over the course of this pandemic, and then last legislative session, here in Washington state we made the biggest investment in child care and early learning we ever have. Almost $500 million was invested in child care through the Fair Start for Kids Act,” Pricco said.
According to the Department of Children, Youth & Families, since January 2021, 255 licensed providers across Washington have permanently closed. Currently, there are 5,331 open child care providers; in-home preschools account for 3,076 of that number. While improvements are being made, some child care providers wonder if it will be enough to stabilize an already financially tumultuous industry.
“We have lost programs, but we’ve lost a lot less than we thought we were going to when the pandemic started,” Pricco said. “A lot of the money that was invested in child care hasn’t gone out the door yet.”
Small home preschools
Nina Mitchell-Anderson, who has a master’s in administration education, worked in the Highline, Seattle and Tacoma school districts and the Atlanta school district in Georgia for 20 years. During that time, Mitchell-Anderson observed that many children of color and low-income families were not thriving in the education system. When she was ready for a move in a new direction, she decided to open an in-home preschool, Life Academy Childcare Center, in Seattle’s Central District, in the hope of supporting those families before they entered grade school.
In order to serve low-income families, Mitchell-Anderson could not charge tuition. Instead, she participates in the Seattle Preschool Program (SPP) and Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP), public subsidy programs that serve youth who are more likely to fall behind academically due to income disparities. CCAP and SPP help families pay for preschool and child care so parents can work.
Mitchell-Anderson opened her center, which is licensed to enroll 12 children, in 2016. In these five years, she has experienced firsthand barriers that prevent small child care centers like hers from thriving in the industry.
“The state isn’t valuing us as educators,” Mitchell-Anderson said. “If you’re looked at as a babysitter, they’re going to want to pay you babysitter rates.” Mitchell-Anderson said more benefits and competitive pay is needed to persuade passionate educators not to leave the workforce.
When a person walks into Life Academy Childcare Center, they find a science area, a wall lined with colorful cubbies, a writing table and a round table for students to do arts and crafts. Upstairs, a dramatic playroom with a kitchen set is waiting for students to put on their cooking aprons. Every room in Mitchell-Anderson’s house, except for her bedroom and laundry room, is designed for students.
Building codes, licensing and regulations drive costs, and while there are grants available to help mitigate some of those costs, she says the financial risks can discourage some in-home preschools from applying.
“There’re a lot of stipulations to the money that’s out there that, to me, they dangle in providers’ faces,” Mitchell-Anderson said. “They (the state) may supply a grant for you, but it doesn’t cover the necessities that you would need for expansion, which is hard without financial support from the state.”
Mitchell-Anderson said home preschools operate on minuscule margins, and a drop in student numbers is all that it would take to be pushed out of the industry, with a big grant that still has to be paid back.
Mitchell-Anderson is connected with the city of Seattle’s preschool program so she gets a subsidy from the city, but with that added funding comes a lot of paperwork and reports. “Some providers don’t want to do all that paperwork. … You have to be in the early achiever program, which brings on more paperwork and more regulations and rules,” Mitchell-Anderson said.
Mitchell-Anderson feels the COVID-19 grants are directed more toward the bigger child care centers that employ more teachers, not toward smaller family home care centers. She argues that smaller preschools are more vulnerable to closures and have less money in reserve.
According to DCYF, small providers are only eligible for a $6,500 pandemic grant, while facilities with more than 66 children can receive up to a $20,000 grant.
“It’s a big gap,” Mitchell-Anderson said. “There’re a lot of people in this area that have closed down because of the rules and regulations, or maybe they were behind on their mortgage, and then they were only allotted $6,500. Again, the money that they’re allotting certain size businesses is unrealistic,” Mitchell-Anderson said.
When Mitchell-Anderson got her COVID-19 grant money, it lasted six weeks. To supplement her income, Mitchell-Anderson, who is also an early-childhood studies professor at North Seattle College, said she doesn’t have to look much beyond the surface to see that home preschools are struggling to stay afloat. One of her students closed their preschool this June.
“The only reason why I’m still in business is because of the kids, and that’s what the whole purpose should be geared around is the kids. It’s not the money. It’s not the size of your building or how many buildings you can have, but are your children progressing,” Mitchell-Anderson said.
Creating new child care facilities can be just as challenging as maintaining old ones. Haggard Childcare Resources operates eight Montessori schools in Seattle and provides services to 650 families. Casey Thoreen, who is on the executive committee of Haggard, said he was lucky to find a new location after one of his centers lost its space when Seattle Children’s Hospital closed due to budget cuts in the pandemic.
“I’ve probably looked at 200 different spaces in the last five years, and this one just serendipitously came up. It was actually under contract to be sold, and the deal fell through,” Thoreen said.
The biggest challenge in the last five years for Thoreen has been finding a commercial building that has outdoor space. According to the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections, child care centers must provide 75 square feet per child for outdoor play. Scheduling outdoor play in shifts can allow providers to operate at lower square footage.
Thoreen said he can find a building with 10,000 square feet, but it’s been difficult to find a commercial building with an additional 5,000 square feet of outdoor space. On top of that, child care facilities are considered hazardous compared to other businesses, and upgrades must be done to stay up to code.
“You have to upgrade everything in the building to current code,” Thoreen said. “This building, which is in amazing shape and it’s a beautiful building, but it was built in 1975.” Thoreen said his new place will cost $1.6 million, and $400,000 out-of-pocket from Haggard for architects and engineers to improve the building and get it up to code.
Thoreen said Haggard Childcare Resources can’t afford to buy the building; instead, they have come to an agreement with the owner to lease it for 15 years.
Thoreen is grateful to have found a location that will provide a healthy environment for students to learn and grow. Still, he’s unsure of the center’s future after the lease expires and what will happen to all the money that has been invested into a building they don’t own. Thoreen emailed, “No capitalism-oriented business would put so much money into something with so little (or no) return.”
In spite of all the difficulties, Thoreen said Haggard Childcare Resources is determined to stay in the industry and focus on what is best for the students and not what is best for business.
Samira George covers real people living real lives in the Puget Sound. Follow her on Twitter @samirakgeorge.
Read more of the Sept. 8-14, 2021 issue.