A new report sheds light on America’s “child care deserts.” Here in King County, are we living in an Out-of-School-Time desert?
As students head back to school this week, I am thinking a lot about the hours between 2:30 PM and 6:00 PM. Most Seattle elementary schools will be getting out at 2:25 PM in 2017-18, more than an hour earlier than their middle and high school-aged peers. Every Wednesday, students will be released at 1:10 PM for teacher professional development. This will be the second consecutive year that elementary school students in Seattle have been getting out earlier than is customary, but it remains an adjustment for many working parents. All summer, my neighborhood listserv has been full of requests for after-school care. One parent who was new to Seattle wrote, “All of the childcare programs are full. What does everyone do???” I wonder the same thing.
A new report from the Center for American Progress demonstrates that many localities around the U.S. are facing a critical shortage of care options for preschool-aged children. The report’s authors looked at data from 22 states (not including Washington), and found that more than half of these states’ population live in “child care deserts.” Child care deserts are defined as neighborhoods with more than 50 children under age 5 that have no licensed child care facility, or have so few facilities that there are more than three children for every licensed slot. The New York City neighborhood where I lived when my first child was born is home to 370 children under age 5, but only two licensed child care facilities serving a total of 24 children. Its ratio of more than 15 children for every slot easily qualifies it as a child care desert. And as I frantically tried to make arrangements for my son when I went back to work, I remember asking myself the same question that the Seattle mom asked on my neighborhood listserv: What does everyone do???
Now I find myself asking a different question, which is, what happens after age 5? There are more than 27,000 elementary school students in the Seattle Public Schools. How many slots are there in programs that can provide care for these students from 2:30 PM and 6:00 PM, and from 1:10 PM to 6:00 PM every Wednesday? And where are these slots located? To produce their report, the Center for American Progress was able to map the location and capacity of all licensed child care providers in order to provide a census tract-level picture of supply and demand. Such a map would be a great place to start to understand the child care situation in Seattle and surrounding areas. But it would not tell the whole story. Quality and affordability should also be taken into account.
Quality matters in Out-of-School Time (OST) programs. The highest-quality programs provide more than a safe place to be after school. They can give children who struggle in school a much-needed boost. More importantly they can inspire a love of learning, and help children to grow socially and emotionally so that they can thrive in all areas of their lives. In their Quality Standards for Washington State, School’s Out Washington provides a framework for understanding what quality looks like in OST programs. Quality encompasses not only the experiences that young people have in programs, but also the cultural responsiveness of those programs, and the extent to which program staff build connections to families, schools, and communities. If we had a better understanding of where high-quality programs are in relation to the families who would most benefit from them, we could know where greater investment, either in new programs or in quality supports for existing programs, is needed. The Road Map Project, a local education collective impact initiative, has identified increased access to quality OST programming as an essential equity strategy; however, the baseline measure for this is not yet established.
The mere presence of high-quality OST slots in a geographic area does not guarantee access for children living or attending school near those slots. Affordability is critical. According to Child Care Aware of Washington, the average monthly cost of before- and after-school care in King County ranges from $585 for family child care settings to $607 for center-based care. Without subsidies, these costs will be prohibitive for many families in our region. More than one third of Seattle Public Schools students qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch; in the Road Map region of South Seattle and South King County, this climbs to 56%. If the families most in need cannot afford high-quality OST programs, then it will be difficult if not impossible to close our unacceptable opportunity and achievement gaps. We need to ensure that subsidies are available to all who qualify, and also that there are accessible, high-quality programs throughout the region that accept them.
We need a better picture of the availability, quality, and affordability of OST slots in our area. The Youth Program Directory for King County is a start, but until we are able to overlay information on area demographics, program capacity, and program cost, we cannot fully understand which children do and do not have adequate access to needed OST programs. Such an understanding could lead to better policy that at the end of the day might mean fewer families asking, “What does everyone do???”
Submitted by Sarah Terry