Talk to child care providers about the statewide child care crisis and they’ll tell you it’s an ever-increasing list of regulations coming from the state that is making it more difficult for them to keep their doors open and discouraging the development of new centers.
“The new (regulations in the Washington Administrative Code) have caused the most hardship for child care,” said Nancy Stevenson, owner and operator of Wunderland Child Care Center. “Until they step up and admit it’s their crisis nothing is going to change.”
Stephanie Smith at Learning to Grow in Elma serves about 160 kids a day in a couple different locations, with staff of 35.
“I liken my role to an air traffic controller,” she said. “That’s what it takes to keep us fiscally afloat and able to serve the needs of our community.”
Wunderland has five locations – one in Hoquiam, three in Aberdeen and one in Elma — serving about 280 kids a day through various programs among the locations. Wunderland has been in business for 23 years, and Stevenson said she’s never seen a regulatory structure from the state that is as damaging as the one she’s operating under now.
“Never has there been such a disconnect between providers and DCYF,” said Stevenson. “We are lumped together with juvenile detention, schools, a boys’ home, we’re all under the same policy, it’s one rule for everybody.”
DCYF is the state Department of Children, Youth and Families, the lead agency for state-funded children and family services.
Teresa Andrews opened Wonder Years child care in Hoquiam in 2002. “I’m one of only two small centers left in the county (she is licensed for 30 kids). We’ve lost three or four small centers in the last year.”
Shortly after opening her center, Andrews participated in the Washington State Child Career and Wage Ladder Pilot Project. The state funded providers’ employee wages.
“It was 100% focused toward salaries and benefits,” she said. Since the program was defunded about seven years ago, “We’ve lost over half of the providers in the state. I’m worried all the (regulations) will mean we are going to have to shut down.”
Andrews said the focus on funding shifted from staff salaries and benefits to something called the Early Achievers program, a standardized method of early childhood education with state-mandated requirements for each child care provider, in-home or center. “You need so many blocks per child, so many toys for each child,” said Stevenson.
DCYF rolled this out in 2014 as a voluntary program. However, “when nobody signed up, I’d say two years later they attached it to state subsidies; participate or you can no longer take subsidy clients,” said Angela Jones, Wunderland site manager.
DCYF Director of Communications Debra Johnson said in an email, “This is correct. Sites that accept Working Connections Child Care subsidy or Seasonal Child Care Subsidy must enroll in Early Achievers within 30 days of receiving their first subsidy payment. They must meet additional participation and rating milestones in Early Achievers.”
Staffing requirements are shifting and, according to Stevenson, starting Aug. 1 2019, the state requires two staff members on site regardless of the number of children.
“From open to close, in-home or center,” said Stevenson. “It’s closing a lot of in-homes. We need to have in-home centers. Our size service doesn’t fit every family.”
These regulations are constantly shifting as well. According to an email from Johnson, the law states that factors such as home and center capacity, ratio and group size are all taken into consideration when looking at the number of staff required compared to the number of children.
Another regulation is an educational component. Child care workers are now required to have an Early Childhood Education certificate, despite the fact many longtime day care workers have practical experience and have attended state-required training every year of their employment.
“I’ve been here 20 years and now I’m in night school two days a week to get the piece of paper,” said Jones. “Even though we get the annual training every year.”
Retaining employees once they do get the certificate is more difficult, said Stevenson.
“Once they get the education they move on to work at schools who can pay more,” she said. “If they get the education why work at the center when you can get better pay elsewhere?”
Johnson said in an email, “Providers have options for meeting the staff qualifications listed in the Washington Administrative Code and work experience is one of the ways to meet the requirement.” State regulations indicate if a provider has two years experience now and completed the regular training as part of their licensed job, they will be able to meet the state requirements.
These education requirements are shifting from month to month, as the state modifies its requirements, leaving providers trying to keep up and trying to keep staff in place and properly compensated. Stevenson said, “the never-ending WACs are more than challenging to keep up with, all while trying to run a business.”
“Lots of those teachers working in the field left after the career wage ladder was cut; they took big salary cuts, so they went to work for the schools,” said Andrews. “So we lost all those skilled teachers, and really the foundation of a quality program lies in your staff: the teachers, their skills and education and ability to relate to the kids. If you’re dealing with constant turnover it impacts building relationships with the families. When the state looks at quality child care they need to look first at retaining staff and providers.”
Blanket state regulations restrict a day care provider’s ability to develop community-specific programs.
“They’re looking at a more common, sterile, one-size-fits all (policy),” said Stevenson, adding what works best in Seattle would not necessarily work here.
The importance of child care for the families and the children themselves goes beyond any standard curriculum, said Stevenson.
“Sometimes we’re the only constant for these children,” she said. “We’re making sure they are fed, their clothes are washed, we celebrate special events, we give them hugs and greet them every day. We’re in the nurturing care business. We don’t want to be run like a school, or a boys’ home, or juvenile detention. We want to focus on the physical and intellectual health of children, and excessive regulation is putting (facilities) out of business.”
Stevenson said the buildup of regulations in the industry is an attack on women-owned businesses.
“As a woman I’m very proud of this business I’ve created and established,” she said. “We have uplifted so many women off assistance, all working full time, all making a livable wage,” many who would be forced back on assistance if her center were to go under.
Providers agree child care needs to be regulated, but the ever-changing additions to regulations are a burden, they say.
“I support regulations, I feel all child care services need to have high standards,” said Stevenson. “But there needs to be a threshold for those standards.”
“I think the intent in child care regulations, the phrase has been high quality child care, and everybody wants their child to be part of a high quality day care,” said Smith. “I think they’ve failed to think about the business of child care.”
Stevenson, Andrews and Smith find themselves taking active roles with state officials, trying to find a way to keep child care facilities of all sizes and types afloat, personalized for their own communities’ specific needs, and operating under a regulatory system that helps keep current facilities in business and encourages the development of new facilities to make up the shortfall.
“We love what we do, don’t regulate us out of our industry,” said Stevenson.