Whether you’re heading back to work, expanding your side hustle or switching neighborhoods, locking down high-quality, reliable child care is a major stressor.
For families in Seattle, where daycare is famously scarce and costly, it can mean weeks, if not months, of exhaustive touring, interviewing and vetting providers, straining time and resources before you even get your first tuition bill.
So while you’re spending precious time and mental energy on your search, the last thing you want to do is waste time. Here’s what to know to help narrow your picks so you can spend your downtime with your kids, not daycare-hunting.
Affordability isn’t budging — but there’s hope
Washington State consistently ranks among the states with the least affordable child care.
National child-care advocacy group Child Care Aware recently named Washington the third most costly state for infant child care, marking our state’s fifth straight year in the top 10. That means the average single mom pays more than half her income for full-time infant care, while married couples fork over 15 percent of their take-home pay.
Lawmakers are taking notice. Last fall, the Child Care for Working Families Act proposed a sliding fee model that would limit child-care spending for low-and-middle income families to no more than 7 percent of their take-home pay. The bill also aims to increase compensation for child-care professionals, many of whom earn poverty-level wages.
So help may be on the horizon, but this bill is still under review and proposed changes could take years to implement. In the meantime, families looking for more affordable care might want to consider licensed home-based programs, which tend to cost less than child-care centers, to the tune of $3K to $5K less per year for infants, toddlers and preschoolers.
Child-care centers and home-based programs aren’t identical
Cost isn’t the only difference between center-based and home-based child care, though.
The state regulates both types of providers, but they’re held to slightly different standards in some areas. That means care are at a state-licensed center might look different from care provided in a licensed home facility, even when both programs are considered high-quality.
One notable difference is screen time: Licensed child-care centers must limit screen time for school-aged kids to no more than one hour per week, while licensed home-based providers can show up to two hours daily, as long as the content is educational.
Whether you choose a center or a home-based program, talk to the director about your expectations for screen time, meal times, naps and other aspects of your child’s daily care.
Licensed vs. accredited: Finding and sorting quality programs
It’s easy to find out whether a daycare, preschool or home-based provider is licensed: Simply search the state’s database of licensed centers. A current license means the provider has earned the state’s stamp of approval by meeting strict guidelines for safety, cleanliness and staffing.
An accredited program has gone a step further, earning a national credential for quality from a private organization such as the American Montessori Society or the Association of Christian Schools International.
Parents should look for a current state license first, and then use accreditation as another assurance of quality, says Ryan Pricco, director of policy and advocacy at Child Care Aware of Washington.
But accredited programs can be harder to find, since just 11 percent of Washington’s daycare centers and 2 percent of home-based centers are nationally accredited. Yes, that means parents will pay more for an accreditation seal.
Why does licensing, or accreditation, matter? Simply put, it’s a way to make sure your child’s caretaker takes his or her job seriously, keeps up with industry requirements and plays by the rules.
“When we hear the nightmare stories about children being abused or lost while in child care, those tend to be in unlicensed settings, and parents aren’t always even aware that they’re using an unlicensed center,” says Pricco.
Taking a few minutes to do some background homework isn’t hard, and it can save lots of headaches down the road.