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​King County child care crisis

Photo: Joshua Huston

This is what child care looks like for Donna Denina and her family.

The New Holly Neighborhood mom takes her 2-year-old daughter to her father-in-law's house three days a week. Her 5-year-old son goes to preschool. He's about to start kindergarten.

Two days a week she works from home. She calls it a privilege other moms don't have. During that time she's changing diapers, preparing meals and keeping her kids occupied in between emails, computer work and conference calls. Rather than the educationally-rich experience she'd like for her kids, sometimes she's popping in a video to keep them occupied.

"It's more stressful than going to the office," she said. "I feel like I'm being a bad mom. I can't do everything at once."

She and her husband, Ron Antonio, would like something better for their kids. She'd like to stay home but they can't afford it. They'd like a child care provider who is well paid and happy with her job, one who could even expose the children to their Filipino heritage. Right now, they're thankful for what they've got.

It's better than it used to be. When their son was an infant, he was shuttled back and forth in a "crazy schedule" between his grandparents' homes in Seattle and Snohomish.

What's perhaps surprising is Denina and her husband aren't low income. They're both educated working professionals. And they're far from alone.

Child care in the Seattle area is in crisis. King County is one of the most expensive places in the nation for child care. An infant in full-time care in King County costs on average $1,445 per month, according to a report released in August from the nonprofit Puget Sound Sage. That's more expensive than a year at the University of Washington. That's more expensive than rent for many families.

Meanwhile, day care workers and preschool teachers are earning in many cases poverty-level wages. The typical child care worker earns between $23,000 and $29,000 annually, according to the Puget Sound Sage report. That's because at-home providers and day care centers must pay insurance, taxes, rent, supplies and other expenses, leaving little money left to pay workers.

City leaders and early childhood education advocates want to find a solution. They just don't agree on how to fix the problem.

Seattle voters will be asked to choose between two early education measures on the ballot in November. The proposals are considered "competing" measures so voters can't approve both.

The city of Seattle proposes a four year "demonstration phase" of a universal preschool program for 3- and 4-year-olds. The program is voluntary and tuition would be free for families making up to three times the federal poverty level – for a family of four, that's $71,550 annually. Other families would pay on a sliding scale. Tuition is estimated to be about $11,000 per child.

The program will be provided through a "mixed-delivery" system – a combination of classrooms offered by Seattle Public Schools and community providers. It doesn't include home-based facilities. The city wants to use only centers that have received high-quality ratings from the state.

Teachers would be required to earn bachelor degrees in early-childhood education but it would also pay teachers the same as Seattle Public Schools kindergarten teachers.

The first year 280 preschoolers are served. By 2018, the city plans to serve 2,000 kids in 100 classrooms. The city wants to avoid some of the problems other cities such as Boston had by implementing a universal preschool program too fast.

The plan costs $58 million and is paid for a property-tax levy. The owner of a Seattle home valued at $400,000 would pay about $43 a year. The goal is to eventually expand access to all 3- and 4-year-olds citywide.

Yes for Early Success, a coalition paid for by two unions, is backing another measure on the ballot, Initiative 107. This measure grew out of the unions' dissatisfaction with the city's plan. The unions were concerned the plan didn't go far enough to address kids of all ages and issues of pay and professional development, said Heather Weiner, spokeswoman for Yes for Early Success.

Indeed, this measure is far broader than the city's plan. It addresses all kinds of care for kids of all ages, including home-based facilities.

The initiative creates a professional development institute that would provide centralized training for Seattle's child care teachers, something that's badly needed, Weiner said. Now, providers are required to get training but it's difficult to find training, much less training that's relevant to a particular worker's needs.

A workforce board would oversee the institute and the city would contract with an outside organization to run it. Although any qualified group could handle administrative duties for the center, the unions would most likely fill that role.

The plan phases in a $15 minimum wage for child-care workers faster than the wage plan already approved by the city. It also establishes a city policy that no family should have to pay more than 10 percent of family income on early education and child care.

Finally, the plan prohibits people who've committed a violent felony from working as child care providers, even those who attempt to do so unlicensed.

The proposal doesn't include a funding mechanism or firm numbers on the cost. Weiner said it could be done for as little as $3 million annually. Those particulars would be sorted out later.

"We don't claim to have all the answers," Weiner said. "We want the city council to take it seriously."

South Seattle mom Donna Denina, struggling to juggle care for her two children, doesn't have the solutions either. She just knows child care is expensive and difficult to find. She's well aware she's in a better situation than many other families.

"It's not just the affordability but it's the quality too," she said. "You are sending your kids to a stranger for the majority of the day. For me, I would feel better knowing the folks responsible for my children are happy at their jobs and well trained."

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