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Progressive Voice: Arlington’s Childcare Shortage — Making Changes That Count

Progressive Voice is a biweekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.com.

By Katie Cristol

You don’t have to be a parent of young children to appreciate the value of accessible, affordable and quality childcare.

A healthy childcare market supports families and also supports economic development — for large employers and for the small entrepreneurs behind childcare businesses — and can improve outcomes for young learners. Unfortunately, as community leader Anne O’Brien effectively described in ARLnow a year and a half ago, Arlington County’s supply of childcare, while high-quality, has been scarce and too often inaccessible.

Over the past two years, a coalition of providers, nonprofits, County staff and parents have spent hundreds of hours on the priorities in our Child Care Initiative Action Plan. Our theory is that these steps, such as eliminating zoning ordinance and regulatory barriers to opening and expanding childcare, as well as supporting providers in improving their staffing and training, can increase the supply of quality, affordable and accessible childcare in Arlington.

Making systemic changes to help all people succeed is a core progressive value. Just as important is taking a hard-nosed look at whether those changes are having the desired effect. So how are we doing?

The Childcare Initiative has been anchored in data. We began with a Demographic Risk and Reach study, which found that affordability is a huge concern for middle-class as well as low income families in Arlington. For two children in center-based care, child care expenses are 38% of our median income for a family of four — more than seven times the threshold that the federal government describes as “affordable.”

Supply shortages were worse than we thought: Known capacity is sufficient to serve only 54% of Arlington’s children under five, despite data indicating that most Arlington children live in families where all parents work. These gaps between supply and need were greatest in the 22204 zip code. This is particularly concerning, given that neighborhoods in 22204 are home to Arlington’s most vulnerable children and families.

These data — paired with extensive qualitative data from providers and parents about their greatest needs — were the basis for the policy changes that my County Board colleagues and I adopted this spring and summer.

We have some early indicators that our efforts are starting to work. Arlington saw a net increase of 247 spots in the initial year of the Childcare Initiative, most in South Arlington where they are most needed. Now with the code changes having taken effect July 1, we expect those numbers will increase significantly. Within just a couple of months of the changes, 30 family day care homes had submitted requests to expand. In support of our quality goals, 327 Arlington childcare spots were newly quality- rated in 2018, a 33% increase over the prior year.

As the Childcare Initiative “grows up,” the real measure will be if there are more high-quality spots available to families all over the County.

So, we’re debuting a dashboard to monitor what counts. That includes big-picture measures of availability (total capacity, capacity by ZIP code, and the percent of children in the County that can be served). It also includes progress on accessibility: How many students with special needs are being served? How many low-income families with subsidies are accessing quality care? Is back-up childcare, or childcare during nontraditional hours, increasing?

We won’t transform our childcare landscape overnight. But our childcare reforms are grounded in data, and it is data that will let us know whether these reforms are making a difference that counts.

A final note, since the policy is personal for Arlington families: If you’re looking for childcare in Arlington, you should know that we also re-launched our online directory, allowing filtering by languages spoken, type of care and subsidy acceptance.

Katie Cristol is a member of the Arlington County Board.

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