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Low Marks, High Hopes For Washington's Early Education System

Kyle Stokes

Washington state's publicly-funded preschool programs may be high-quality, but too few students have access to it.

That's the takeaway from newly-released ratings of state preschool programs from the magazine Education Week. Washington received a D grade and the third-worst rating of any state in the publication's Early Education Index.

"It's definitely a call to action," state Department of Early Learning director Bette Hyde said of the index overall, which gave few states high marks.

But if the legislature comes through with funding over the next several years, Hyde says Washington is poised to address an issue that significantly hurt the state's rating: low enrollment rates.

'If You Build It, They Will Come'

Roughly 40 percent of eligible 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled in publicly-funded preschool in Washington last school year, a rate the report says lags behind most other states. In March 2014, there were more than 2,000 students on a waiting list for state-funded pre-K slots through providers of the Early Childhood Education & Assistance Program, or ECEAP.

"It's not that people are deciding not to go and that's why our numbers are low ... Every Head Start and ECEAP program in the state has a waiting list of people who want to get in but cannot be served because of lack of funding," said Katy Warren, deputy director of the Washington State Association of Head Start and ECEAP. "When I say, 'if you build it, they'll come,' it's because I know they're waiting at the door to get in."

Gov. Jay Inslee has proposed an additional $79.8 millionin ECEAP funding, enough to add more than 6,300 slots to the program during the next two-year budget. That's part of a ramp-up to ensure the ECEAP preschool programs don't turn away any students who are eligible for services by 2018, which is already in state law.

Students in the ECEAP program must come from families with incomes no higher than 110 percent of the federal poverty level — around $25,900 a year for a family of four.

In Two Years, A 'Totally Different Scenario'?

Hyde said the state also wants to expand access to full-day preschool options since the logistics of enrolling students in half-day programs are often difficult for working parents.

State early education advocates say Washington's preschool program may be small right now, but its level of quality stacks up well nationally. A report from the Washington State Institute for Public Policy found ECEAP had a greater positive impact on student's test scores in later years than similar programs in other states.

Hyde doesn't disagree with Education Week's findings, but also says the report shows a snapshot of past performance at a time when Washington is increasing its investment in early education.

"I can't wait 'til they do this [analysis] in another two years when we have these things rolling out," said Hyde, "because it'll be a totally different scenario."

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.