Children's Alliance Director Highlights Critical Importance of Affordable, High-Quality Childcare

Dr. Stephan Blanford, Executive Director of the Children's Alliance, discusses the childcare crisis in Washington state, including the lack of affordable, high-quality options and the low compensation for workers.

Children's Alliance Director Highlights Critical Importance of Affordable, High-Quality Childcare

In a recent interview with Hacks & Wonks, Dr. Stephan Blanford, the Executive Director of Children's Alliance, shed light on the critical importance of affordable and high-quality childcare in Washington state. Dr. Blanford, who previously served on the Seattle School Board and holds a doctorate in K-12 education, emphasized the significant impact that access to early learning and childcare has on children's success in school and beyond.

"There's a tight correlation between kids having experience in high-quality early learning settings and them doing well in K-12 settings," Dr. Blanford stated. "If you are interested in increasing achievement in the K-12 setting - and in particular, if you're interested in addressing the opportunity gaps, the racial opportunity gaps that affect so many children - you have to prioritize early learning and high-quality childcare in order to achieve that goal."

Dr. Blanford highlighted the economic implications of the lack of affordable childcare, noting that it disproportionately affects women who are forced to make tough decisions about returning to the workforce. "In many parts of the state, there are families that have to drive great distances in order to find childcare. We call them childcare deserts, where there's such a limited supply of childcare that families are just giving up on that," he said.

The high cost of childcare–which, on average, exceeds tuition costs at the University of Washington–is a significant barrier for many families, particularly those with low incomes. Dr. Blanford emphasized the need for state government intervention and subsidies to make childcare more affordable and accessible. He cited the Fair Start for Kids Act, passed in 2021, as a step in the right direction but noted that more needs to be done to address the supply shortage.

Dr. Blanford also highlighted the racial disparities in the childcare sector, noting that many providers are Black and Brown women who are severely undercompensated. "When we think about the importance and the change in trajectory for kids that having access to high-quality childcare can have, it's unconscionable that that would be the third lowest paid profession," he stated.

Looking forward, Dr. Blanford advocated for a statewide conversation about childcare, potentially leading to legislation or a voter-approved initiative to fund universal access. He also suggested innovative solutions, such as collaborations between school districts and cities to utilize under-enrolled elementary schools for childcare centers.

"I think there's a great opportunity to take some of those classrooms and be very intentional about making them childcare settings," Dr. Blanford said, addressing the current challenges faced by many school districts due to declining enrollments.

The Children's Alliance, with its 7,000 members across the state, continues to advocate for affordable and accessible childcare. Dr. Blanford encouraged concerned citizens to reach out to their elected officials and demand action on this critical issue. "I encourage your listeners to be very active and not just sit on the sidelines around this critical issue," he concluded.

As Washington state grapples with the challenges of affordable and high-quality childcare, the insights and advocacy of leaders like Dr. Stephan Blanford and organizations such as the Children's Alliance will be crucial in driving the necessary policy changes to support families and ensure the well-being and success of future generations.

About the Guest

Dr. Stephan Blanford

As the Executive Director of Children’s Alliance, Dr. Stephan Blanford leads a team of committed staff, volunteers and more than 6,000 members, advocating fiercely for the improved outcomes for children in Washington state. As an unapologetic advocate for racial and social justice, Stephan’s work has ranged from early learning to college entrance leading small, direct service youth development agencies to multidisciplinary demonstration projects.

In 2013, he was elected by the voters of Seattle and served a four-year term on the Seattle School Board, where he received the “Leadership for Equity” award at the conclusion of his term. More recently, the Evergreen Chapter of the American Society of Public Administrators awarded him the “Billy J. Frank Race and Social Justice” award for leadership and advocacy. Extending his work at a national level, he is the board chair of Integrated Schools and serves on the board of Partnership for America’s Children, Balance our Tax Code Coalition, and several other progressive organizations.

Dr. Blanford holds a Bachelors’ degree in Social Justice from Antioch University, a Masters in Public Policy from the Evans School of Governance and Public Policy and a Doctorate from the College of Education at the University of Washington.

Find Dr. Stephan Blanford on Twitter/x at @StephanBlanford and Children’s Alliance at @ChildAllianceWA.


Children's Alliance

Washington Child Care Collaborative Task Force | Washington State Department of Commerce

2023 KIDS Count Data Book | Annie E. Casey Foundation

Child care costs more than college in Washington state” by Melissa Santos from Axios

Report: WA's high cost of child care hits single moms hardest” by Sami West from KUOW

The Real Costs Of Child Care In America” by Joy Borkholder from InvestigateWest

Podcast Transcript

[00:00:00] Crystal Fincher: Welcome to Hacks & Wonks. I'm Crystal Fincher, and I'm a political consultant and your host. On this show, we talk with policy wonks and political hacks to gather insight into local politics and policy in Washington state through the lens of those doing the work with behind-the-scenes perspectives on what's happening, why it's happening, and what you can do about it. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast to get the full versions of our Friday week-in-review show and our Tuesday topical show delivered to your podcast feed. If you like us, the most helpful thing you can do is leave a review wherever you listen to Hacks & Wonks. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at and in our episode notes.

Well today, I am very pleased to welcome to the program Dr. Stephan Blanford, the Executive Director of Children's Alliance. And I wanted to have a conversation today about childcare - how important it is, how unaffordable it has become, and how we fix this - it's so important to so many people. And so I guess I will just start off by asking you, Stephan, why is childcare so important? Why does it matter so much? And what brought you to this work?

[00:01:24] Dr. Stephan Blanford: Interestingly, I have a background in education - I served as, I was elected and served for a term on the School Board in Seattle. And also my doctoral work was in K-12. And there's a tight correlation between kids having experience in high-quality early learning settings and them doing well in K-12 settings. And so if you are interested in increasing achievement in the K-12 setting - and in particular, if you're interested in addressing the opportunity gaps, the racial opportunity gaps that affect so many children - you have to prioritize early learning and high-quality childcare in order to achieve that goal. And so that's something that I've been passionate about since - in particular - since my young child was of an age where she was getting into childcare. And I learned a lot about it and then have had a passion to try to have all kids have the type of experience that she had.

[00:02:29] Crystal Fincher: Certainly, and I certainly have had my own experiences with childcare with my son, who is now definitely much older than childcare age right now. What do you say to people who say - maybe are an employer - what does childcare have to do with me? Why is this something we should be worried about as a community and as a society?

[00:02:51] Dr. Stephan Blanford: Yeah, that's a great question. Because in many parts of the state - Seattle in particular, but many parts of the state - we're one of the most childless cities in the United States. So lots of people don't have that type of experience where they're looking for childcare, where they even know someone that is seeking out childcare. But it is such an economic driver. And so many of the negative outcomes that we see in society - in all parts of the state and in all parts of the nation - are correlated with kids not doing well in school and then not being successful in life. And so I tell people all the time, whether you are a grandparent that whose kids are no longer in school or a business owner or whatever, there's a huge implication on your life by the access or lack of access to childcare.

[00:03:43] Crystal Fincher: Well, speaking of access - what is the state right now? We hear that it's unaffordable, we hear that it's hard to come by. Is that true?

[00:03:53] Dr. Stephan Blanford: Yes, it is. In many parts of the state, there are families that have to drive great distances in order to find childcare. We call them childcare deserts, where there's such a limited supply of childcare that families are just giving up on that. And in many cases, it affects women - because obviously women are, who would normally be in the workforce are having to make really tough decisions and go back to taking care of kids at home where they would prefer to be out in the workforce and helping to support their families. So it has huge implications, whether you're in one of those childcare deserts or even if you're in a more populated part of the state - because that inability to find any childcare and more importantly to find high-quality childcare has severe implications for families and communities at large.

[00:04:50] Crystal Fincher: Why is it so hard to find?

[00:04:52] Dr. Stephan Blanford: There's a great number of complex factors that lead to the fact that the supply is reduced. The fact that when I sent my kid to childcare - I was also in school in a graduate program - and I was paying more in childcare costs than I was paying for tuition at that time. And that has not improved over the 10 years since I graduated from graduate school. That hasn't changed - where the cost of tuition at the University of Washington is lower than the average cost of childcare in most parts of the state right now. And so - mine is a middle-class family - if you're a low-income family, then the economics of that just do not pan out. And so we are coming to realize that childcare is a public good - it's a public benefit in the same way that K-12 education benefits the community as well as it does the individual child. But we don't have a mechanism by which we can support childcare centers so they can provide this critical service.

And if I could add one more thing that I think is really important and complicates this matter, many of the childcare providers in Washington State and around the country are Black and Brown women. And for some unknown reason that has a lot to do with race and racism, they are undercompensated. It is the third lowest paid profession in Washington State right now. And when we think about the importance and the change in trajectory for kids that having access to high-quality childcare can have, it's unconscionable that that would be the third lowest paid profession. You would think that it would be way up there with doctors and other critical professions - it would be compensated at a rate that is commensurate with its importance in society - but for some reason it is not.

[00:06:51] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, absolutely. And you brought up a great point. It is more expensive to pay for childcare than it is to pay for college, which is really saying something with the inflation that we've seen in higher education prices and along with childcare costs. So in this situation, how is it that costs are so high yet compensation for workers is still so low?

[00:07:18] Dr. Stephan Blanford: Well, there's a big component of it that has to do with ratios. In most childcare centers that are licensed, you have to have a certain number of adults for a certain number of children. And in particular, kids that are 0-3 years old - they require an even more robust ratio to ensure that the kids are safe during that time that they are away from their parents. And so that has a lot of bearing on the cost - as well as a licensed center has to have exits, has to have lots of equipment in the center, has to be safe and obviously secure so kids aren't getting out and getting out into the street or whatever. And all of those costs are borne by the childcare provider, usually a business person who is trying to establish a center that has all the safety measures in place and the appropriate staffing ratios to ensure that kids are safe and learning while they're in their care. And that all of those things together lend themselves to it being a pretty expensive enterprise.

[00:08:27] Crystal Fincher: Now, what does it mean - for a family and for a community - for childcare to be this expensive?

[00:08:34] Dr. Stephan Blanford: Well, we spend a lot of time at Children's Alliance advocating that there is a role that the state government has to play in subsidizing the cost. Because the reality right now is - for low-income families who cannot afford those expensive costs that we've been talking about, that means that their kids don't have access to childcare at all. Or they have access to very low-quality childcare - we're talking about being placed in front of a TV and spending eight hours a day, not engaging in that way - and those are pretty significant, have long term consequences for young children. We believe that there is a role that the state government has to play. It has funded the Fair Start for Kids Act in 2021, which is driving about a billion dollars into the sector. And that's a start, but it is by no means the solution to the problem. So we will continue to advocate for improvements and increased funding to make it more affordable for families - middle- and low-income families - to be able to afford childcare, and also provide support for the providers who are trying to provide the service.

[00:09:49] Crystal Fincher: So, you talk about how it is so challenging for the families to afford it. It sounds like the families who most stand to benefit from high-quality childcare, and who we need to make sure have access, are the ones having the hardest time affording and accessing it. Is that how you see it?

[00:10:09] Dr. Stephan Blanford: That is exactly correct. Yes, that is exactly correct. And so the Fair Start for Kids Act that was passed in 2021 has gone a long way towards making it more affordable, but we don't have enough supply in Washington state. And that lack of supply is impeding the ability of the legislation to provide childcare. Ultimately, if you're a childcare provider and there are subsidies that are available, you're still trying to figure out ways to make sure that all the families in your community are getting childcare. And if you are constrained by the fact that you're only licensed to take care of 15 or 20 or 50 kids, then if there are a 100 kids standing outside your door waiting to get in, then you have to make some difficult choices. And in many cases, the families of those children - those hundred that are stuck outside - they then have to make difficult choices, which include someone staying at home so that there's someone to take care of the children.

[00:11:15] Crystal Fincher: Which again, impacts a family's ability to be economically mobile, to participate fully in our economy, to be able to advance in the workplace. Childcare - for people with kids, communities with kids - is so key to just everybody's ability to function and participate in our society, basically.

[00:11:40] Dr. Stephan Blanford: Right. And it has disproportionate impacts, as I've shared before, on women and their participation in the workforce. There's a study out of Washington State University that says that the gains that have been made in women's participation in the workforce in Washington State have been totally eroded by the fact that childcare is so inaccessible. Women who have decided that they want to participate in the workforce and have made that move and have gotten the training necessary to be able to participate in the workforce - those gains have been eroded by the fact that there is no childcare. And so we're trying to bring that data to legislators and say that we are at a time now where there's need for significant intervention and investment in the childcare sector to ensure that women can participate and children can be served.

[00:12:37] Crystal Fincher: So you talk about there being this shortage and the wages being so low. How do we impact this shortage of childcare workers and pay them a living wage?

[00:12:52] Dr. Stephan Blanford: Well, it has been nice to see - as someone who's kind of a grizzled veteran of advocacy around childcare and other issues - it's been nice to see a coalition of people who are now concerned, who now see the implications of this situation that we're in. So now there are business leaders, governmental leaders who never would have been talking about childcare 5 years ago, 10 years ago. And they now know that it is critically important to the economies of their communities, to business interests, to just every aspect of society. We can't really restart the economy to the degree that it needs to be restarted without a significant investment in accessibility and availability of childcare in the state. It just won't happen. And what it portends - our inaction - is that more and more populations are gonna be disproportionately impacted by that inaction.

[00:14:02] Crystal Fincher: So what else is needed to help address both the affordability and the issues on the business owner's side - like the regulations, which sound like they're necessary to protect kids - and the costs involved?

[00:14:18] Dr. Stephan Blanford: I believe that at some point we're going to have to have a statewide conversation about childcare. And my hope is that that will lead to more significant legislation. And if not legislation, a referendum that is passed or an initiative that is passed by the citizens of the state to tax themselves to be able to afford childcare for anyone who needs it. There are other states that are playing around with the idea of universal pre-K - making sure that every child in the state has access, which means a significant investment in childcare - there's an argument that says that it's a public good and should be funded in the same way that public education is funded. And the economics of it - there's a study that says that for every dollar invested in childcare, there's a $17 return to the economy of the jurisdiction that makes that investment, which is a significant bargain and helps to address some of the biggest challenges that we face around opportunity gaps - racial and economic opportunity gaps. So my hope is that there - we'll continue to have these conversations and get to the point where the voters of the state take this issue up. I believe it will pass. I think enough people are connected to it and understand that they will benefit. And my hope is that we'll see that in the short-term because it's having detrimental impacts right now for families and communities all across the state.

[00:16:07] Crystal Fincher: It absolutely is having detrimental impacts. Barring a statewide initiative being passed - and that's a great idea - what can cities, counties, regions do to try and address this in their own areas?

[00:16:27] Dr. Stephan Blanford: A great question. So I mentioned the fact that I served as a School Board director here in Seattle. And during that time, we were able to create a partnership between Seattle Public Schools and the City of Seattle where there were significant investments and collaboration between the two sectors - the K-12 sector and the early learning sector - to actually have childcare centers based in some of our elementary schools that were under-enrolled. Kids would move directly from the early learning part of the school into the K-12 sector. And there was a national organization that reviewed that collaboration and gave it its highest rating - saying all states in the nation should emulate that type of a model. Because in many cases there are schools that are under-enrolled - so they have classrooms that are unoccupied - and by doing a little bit of work around licensing and changing the structure of the school, they can ensure that kids at all ages in their community from 3 years old to 5 years old, and then from 5 years old to 10 or 11 are served by that elementary school. And I think that's a model that could be emulated in many parts of the state and would go a long way towards solving this problem because there's a significant investment that a business owner has to make in order to secure a space, make the changes in that space before they can open their doors and serve the first child. There are existing buildings - schools - that can solve that problem very easily, but it requires a lot of collaboration and cooperation between schools, cities, and in some cases those aren't easy collaborations to make.

[00:18:25] Crystal Fincher: Definitely, but it does sound promising - obviously, with the review that it received from when it was happening. Is that still happening?

[00:18:34] Dr. Stephan Blanford: Oh yeah, yeah. I was having a conversation with a parent the other day that was talking about the fact that she was able to get childcare and it was just down the street at her local school here in Seattle. And she was just gushing about how important it was and how much it helped her family to be able to have that accessibility and availability so close to their home. And when she got done, I said - Yeah, I was on the School Board, I voted for that, I helped to champion that. And she was really grateful. And it made me very proud because that was a contentious issue - not everybody on the School Board was supportive of that notion. But I know that collaborations between sectors like the early learning sector and the K-12 sector - they go a long way towards addressing some of these very pernicious issues that we've been grappling with for years, like our opportunity gaps, that Black and Brown kids stand to benefit, particularly if those collaborations are set up in the schools that they normally attend.

[00:19:42] Crystal Fincher: Absolutely. Now we also are hearing a lot about school closures right now, about coming deficits, about structural deficits in education. Are these types of partnerships things that can help that kind of situation?

[00:19:59] Dr. Stephan Blanford: Absolutely, absolutely. I think you have hit the nail on the head in that - I hear those stories and I'm really glad that I'm not a School Board director anymore and have to grapple with the declining enrollments that we're starting to see in Seattle and many other school districts. But there's an opportunity there to address the childcare crisis while those schools are going through the challenges that they're going with finance and declining enrollments. I think there's a great opportunity to take some of those classrooms and be very intentional about making them childcare settings. And there's always the possibility that we can be building new childcare settings in communities - and in the short-term, we can redeploy empty classrooms in schools to serve that challenge while we're building those settings 'cause eventually the kids are gonna come back. We know that our enrollments go up and then they go down. And at some point those classrooms are gonna need to be filled by K-5 students. But during that time where we have empty classrooms, why not redeploy them in order to solve the childcare crisis that we are in right now?

[00:21:20] Crystal Fincher: Absolutely. I think some other things I've heard talked about were challenges with zoning in some areas, challenges with opening up - being allowed to open in certain areas - obviously, in Downtown Seattle and several downtowns who've experienced a lot of growth and the availability of childcare and childcare centers has not grown with them, especially in some of those concentrated areas where it's harder to get real estate, afford a lease, find space. What can be done in that area? Is that something worth addressing and taking on?

[00:21:57] Dr. Stephan Blanford: Yeah, I think so. While I was on the School Board - and I was campaigning 10 years ago, so I've been done with my School Board service for about 6 years - and there was a real push to try to make Downtown more of a living neighborhood and involving having an elementary school being based there, increasing the number of childcare settings. And in many cases, it didn't really pencil out - we have a number of families that are choosing to live in the Downtown area, but not at sufficient numbers to warrant the opening of an elementary school. I don't know if that has changed in the six years that I've been off the board, but we need to make decisions that are based on the data that we have and not use childcare and K-12 as a driver to create that neighborhood. Seattle Public Schools didn't have the luxury of investing, hoping that kids were gonna come. We needed to be sure that kids were already there before we tried to deploy a childcare setting or a K-12 setting there. But the question that you ask, which I think is an important one, has to do with licensing and changing settings to be able to allow children to be served in those settings. And that's a partnership between the City, which can do a lot of the licensing, the state and the school districts in order to work in collaboration to ensure that the spaces are conducive to learning and the safety of the kids that are going to be put there.

[00:23:41] Crystal Fincher: And is there anything within the private sector that employers, especially larger employers, can do to help their employees afford and access childcare?

[00:23:53] Dr. Stephan Blanford: Yes, and many, many employers are starting to do that - either by placing a childcare setting inside of their buildings. And I think in particular, given the fact that there's so many vacancies in office space Downtown - if I were an employer and I was trying to one, get my staff back into the office, and two, help to drive the economy by getting people back to work - I would seriously consider working with a childcare provider to provide their service inside of my building. I can tell you from my own personal experience that I have employees right now who are very challenged by the notion of coming back to work, being back in the office on a regular basis because of the inaccessibility of childcare. And so if there were a site in our offices that was dedicated childcare, I could imagine that those employees would be excited by that notion. They'd be able to hang out with their kid at lunchtime. They would - the transit or the transportation issues that are associated with taking your kid to childcare and then going into the office - a lot of that would be solved because you'd all be in the same place. I have worked for an organization that had onsite childcare, and I know it was a driver - it was something that helped us to attract talent and retain talent because in many cases, people wanted to be in the same building that their kids were getting their childcare.

[00:25:32] Crystal Fincher: Absolutely. Onsite childcare is an elite benefit for employees with families, certainly. So looking - for average people in the community who recognize that this is a problem, that this is an issue, but maybe aren't seeing the urgency from some of their elected officials or from within their community. What can the average person do to help move policy like this forward, to help advocate for what can help?

[00:26:04] Dr. Stephan Blanford: Well, it's something that Children's Alliance has been working on for quite a while, so I'm gonna be shameless and plug my organization and say - check us out at, and you can lend your voice to the many voices that - we have 7,000 members across the state who are all advocating for childcare. We are reaching out to legislators. I have two legislators on my schedule today that I'll be talking to about this issue. And I think it is critical that those who are concerned about this issue, they're reaching out to their legislators and saying the time for studying this is over - we need to take action on it and demanding that type of action. I think that extends to School Board races - here in Seattle, we have School Board races that are occurring right now. City Council races - every opportunity to reach out to your elected officials and share with them why this is a priority. I know from my own experiences as an elected official, childcare is usually way down on the list of things that people think are important. And as we've discussed today, we're now understanding how central it is to so many aspects of life for families and communities all across the state. And so I encourage your listeners to be very active and not just sit on the sidelines around this critical issue.

[00:27:39] Crystal Fincher: Absolutely, that's fantastic advice. And even in the candidate world - we've seen candidates in recent years not be able to run or to have to drop out of races for lack of childcare. It really is something affecting everyone. And it also shines a light on the importance of electing people who understand this issue, who have experience with what it's like to deal with this. And hopefully that helps them to be more invested in making some better policy. So I thank you so much for the time that you've taken to speak with us today - very informative, definitely given us a lot to think about, some things to move forward on, and an outlook for and a pathway to get this thing fixed. So thank you so much for your time, Dr. Stephan Blanford.

[00:28:29] Dr. Stephan Blanford: Oh, thank you, Crystal - you ask really good questions and I'm hopeful that we're moving some of your listeners to action.

[00:28:37] Crystal Fincher: Absolutely, thank you so much.

[00:28:39] Dr. Stephan Blanford: Thank you.

[00:28:40] Crystal Fincher: Thank you for listening to Hacks & Wonks, which is produced by Shannon Cheng. You can follow Hacks & Wonks on Twitter @HacksWonks. You can catch Hacks & Wonks on every podcast service and app - just type "Hacks and Wonks" into the search bar. Be sure to subscribe to get the full versions of our Friday week-in-review shows and our Tuesday topical show delivered to your podcast feed. If you like us, leave a review wherever you listen. You can also get a full transcript of this episode and links to the resources referenced in the show at and in the podcast episode notes.

Thanks for tuning in - talk to you next time.