Gov. Jay Inslee said his budget proposal includes investments in the state's early learning system to help make sure kids are ready for school. But some advocacy groups said it doesn't go far enough.
Inslee proposes adding thousands of slots in the state-funded preschool program for low-income families, known as the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP). He also wants to take the first steps toward expanding eligibility for families with a bit higher income.
Currently, the program serves 3- and 4-year-olds from families that earn up to 110 percent of the federal poverty level. The state doesn’t fund enough slots to cover all children who are eligible, but Inslee proposed to add 2,385 slots. By the 2022-23 school year, the state is required by law to provide slots to all children who qualify.
Inslee also proposed to create a state-funded preschool program for 1,910 children from families with incomes up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level. That’s a step that early learning advocates praised.
“One hundred ten percent of the federal poverty level is really, really low income — it’s really difficult to make ends meet and we have a ton of families who have no access to quality care but are not eligible for ECEAP,” said Katy Warren, deputy director of Washington State Association of Head Start and ECEAP.
The federal poverty level in 2018 for a family of four was $25,100. That means that a family of four would qualify for ECEAP if their family income is below $27,610. Raising the eligibility to 200 percent of the federal poverty level means a family of four would qualify with income up to $50,200.
Ryan Pricco, director of policy and advocacy with the group Child Care Aware of Washington, said the governor appears to recognize the importance of early learning. But he said the state is in a full-blown, child-care crisis and needs to do more. He said the majority of kids below the age of 6 live in families where all adults work. That means good, affordable child care is a necessity.
“We’re literally at a point where demand for child care is higher than it’s ever been in our country’s history, and we’ve never, ever invested in child care at a level that would provide an infrastructure to take on that demand,” Pricco said.
Pricco said it's urgent that the state boost the rates it pays child-care providers that accept children who qualify for the Working Connections subsidy program, a program funded by the federal government and the state. He said some providers have stopped accepting kids because the subsidy rate is so low and some are charging private-paying families more to make up for what the state fails to pay.
RaShelle Davis, senior policy advisor to Inslee, said the governor’s budget proposal includes $72.3 million to increase the rates the state pays child-care providers for children in the subsidy program. But she acknowledged the increase still will not raise the rates to the level recommended by the federal government.
“Federal suggestions recommend that we fund our Working Connections child-care program at the 75th percentile and we do recognize that we are lower than that percentile,” she said. “With these investments that the governor is suggesting, we’ll be at the 50th percentile across the state.”
Other early learning investments Inslee has proposed include a pilot ECEAP program for 154 children from birth to age 3, who come from families below 110 percent of the federal poverty level. He also wants to provide universal home visiting and newborn assessments to all families in the state who request the service for infants between the ages of three and 12 weeks of age.