A little over a year ago, Whatcom County voters passed Proposition 5, the Healthy Children’s Fund, by the narrow margin of 20 votes.
The measure created a property tax to “fund child care, early learning programs, and increased support for vulnerable children,” according to the ordinance. The tax will be collected for the next 10 years and is estimated to bring in revenue of $9.976 million by the end of 2023, per the county’s Healthy Children’s Fund Implementation Plan.
With the end of federal emergency COVID relief, the need to fund accessible and equitable child care and early learning services is more evident. Where is Whatcom County in carrying out Proposition 5?
Why the need?
The need for affordable and accessible child care is not new for Whatcom County. In 2012 the child care capacity in the county dropped 8%; just four years later in 2016, the number of available providers went from 147 to 110 — a more than 25% drop — according to a 2018 report published by the Opportunity Council.
The county is 5,000 spots short in available child care programs, per Yes for Whatcom Kids, an advocacy group that worked in support of Proposition 5. Suitable child care options are scarcer in rural areas, per the Opportunity Council report, and for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) community members, as reported in a 2021 study by Western Washington University’s Center for Economic and Business Research.
Meredith Hayes, a convener for the Whatcom Child Care Coalition, said that for years there has been a lot of energy in the community to meet those needs and increase early-childhood well-being. As part of the coalition’s work in supporting Whatcom County in expanding access to child care, she highlights needs identified by families and providers.
Hayes said assessments and reports have identified child care; safe, stable housing; and mental behavioral health services as the three key priorities that should be addressed to increase the ability for people to thrive. A lot of work has been done around how to create solutions, she said.
The Healthy Whatcom Community Health Improvement Plan and Child and Family Well-Being Action Plan have offered solutions, but one of the main issues has been funding, Hayes said, which made putting pieces together difficult.
“As it really became a funding issue, a [public] policy issue and a public will issue, a group of people convened to say, ‘Well, let’s explore what it would look like to have a public funding stream and let’s explore what it would look like if we were to have a local-dedicated public funding stream focused on increasing the well-being of children and families.”
The implementation plan’s purpose is to identify the goals and strategies that need to be addressed and to develop the framework for projects and spending. The goal of the fund is to make sustainable investments in these strategies rather than a one- or two-year funding cycle, Hayes said, and there needed to be deepened infrastructure and deepened commitments to creating long-term conditions for families.
A lived experience
Christine Espina has firsthand experience with child care challenges.
Espina, an associate professor at Western Washington University, relocated to Bellingham from Everett in 2017 after her son was born. Part of the reason for her relocation stemmed from starting a tenure-track faculty position, but child care and the need to be closer to work also played a significant role.
During their time in Everett, Espina and her partner hired a nanny from Fiji, which Espina said she was grateful for because of a similar Pacific Islander culture, as Espina is Filipinx. The nanny agreed to work at a lower hourly rate than she received at previous jobs.
“We’re paying someone wonderful,” Espina said, but we could not pay her what she deserved. “If we were going to pay the appropriate amount I don’t know how we could have afforded it.”
After doing some calculations, Espina and her partner realized they could not save enough money from her partner’s income after paying to cover their child care expenses to make his commute and job “worth it.” Espina was commuting from Everett to Bellingham, while her partner was commuting to Seattle.
Moving north after her partner quit his job to care for their son, Espina’s family ran into similar issues in Bellingham once they both started working again. Espina also faced waitlists, another barrier to child care.
Espina has experienced the difficulty in navigating the systems. “It was hard for me and I’m a privileged person,” she said. “It’s true: child care is an economic issue.”
By the end of December 2023 and beginning of January 2024, the Healthy Children’s Fund is supposed to be in the infrastructure and initial funding stages. This includes hiring staff, developing processes and policies, educating and communicating with providers.
In early November Erika Lautenbach, Whatcom County Health and Community Services director, and Kayla Schott-Bresler, county special initiatives manager, briefed the county council on the plan’s progress.
They discussed the 10 strategies for years one and two in the implementation plan divided between early learning and care, and supporting vulnerable children.
Lautenbach reported that Sarah Simpson was hired as a children and family supervisor, a sub-team was formed to the Children and Family Well-Being Task Force to focus primarily on the Healthy Children’s Fund, and request for proposals were drafted: one related to housing for vulnerable families and another to support innovating approaches to meet various Healthy Children’s fund goals related to early learning and care.
Lautenbach said three to four more RFPs are in progress and will be drafted within the next two months.
“A lot of that work is just starting to come to fruition and in the next few months, you’re going to see a lot more from our department on these funding opportunities and strategies,” she said.
Lautenbach said one of the biggest challenges has been the recruitment of staff.
“We have now had two failed recruitments for a Healthy Children’s Fund program evaluator. We’re going out a third time,” she said. While not giving specifics on reasons for the position being declined, Lautenbach said that pay did come up in these conversations.
Lautenbach said she is optimistic these issues will be resolved in three months when updates are presented again.
As to whether more centers will be created through the initiative or if funding will go into existing programs, Lautenbach said they aim to encourage and incentivize providers to expand or build in areas lacking early learning and care services.
Needs still to be met
As the Healthy Children’s Fund continues to develop, organizations wait for more progress to be made.
The nonprofit Whatcom Center for Early Learning works with babies and toddlers up to three years old with disabilities and developmental delays, and their families and caregivers, explained executive director Sierra James.
The organization aids in speech-language pathology, physical therapy, specialized instruction that supports family resource coordination, and occupational therapy for kids and their families.
With running early learning and early support programs, James said funding is always a constant challenge – despite having a solid funding base from the state.
“So about 75% to 85% year of money comes from the state, but that those funds aren’t enough to do what we need to do to support families,” James said, specifically referring to their early learning program.
Washington recently passed legislation to increase spending in school districts for students with disabilities and developmental delays, James said. The legislation does not cover children like those served by WCEL.
James doesn’t know where funding from the Healthy Children’s Fund will be directed exactly, but she said WECL will be applying for funds and are hoping to get funding for their early learning program.
“There’s a lot of need, we constantly have a waiting list, we’re not really able to fulfill that need,” she said. “We would also love to do a language access project that [they can] partially fund or be the primary donor for.”
James said there is also a need to remember the barriers children living with disabilities and developmental delays face with child care as well.
Lautenbach said Whatcom Health and Community Services continues to meet with families and the community to hear what their needs and challenges are. She said they are also working with healthcare providers to understand how the county can support system changes.
“So a lot of the activities that I described in November that were in process and ongoing are still in that place,” Lautenbach said.
— Reported by Aria Nguyen
Also see from Salish Current:
- “Mind the gap: Whatcom providers face challenges in meeting need for child care,” April 21, 2023
- “Fact-checking what’s being said around Whatcom’s Proposition 5,” Oct. 21, 2022
- “Voters asked to approve child care support as demand exceeds supply,” Sept. 29, 2022
- “Child care shortfall frustrates families, hampers local economy,” Sept. 22, 2022