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'This Is Our Moment': Early Learning Advocates Hoping For Big Year In Olympia

Kyle Stokes
A preschool teacher reads to her students at Genesee Early Learning Center in Seattle.

State legislators are considering injecting "unprecedented" amounts of funding into Washington's early childhood education system, advocates say — but not without first raising the bar for child care providers.

House Democrats included more than $116 million in state funding in their budget proposal for the "Early Start Act," a package providing eligible child care providers with training to improve the quality of their care for children and cash grants to pay for classroom supplies.

"In Washington state, we have historically underfunded child care and underfunded early learning, and this is our moment," said Jon Gould, deputy director of the Children's Alliance, a non-profit advocacy organization supportive of the legislation. "This is our opportunity to realize the benefits of early learning for kids."

But to get that money through the state's existing Working Connections Child Care program — which offers subsidies for low-income families to access early learning — the Early Start Act would require any child care provider receiving state funds to sign up for a rating system for child care and early learning providers called "Early Achievers," which gives providers a rating on a 1-to-5 scale.

How The Ratings — And The Bill — Would Work

At Levels 1 & 2 of the rating system, Gould explains, child care providers have been licensed, taken professional development courses and fulfilled basic health and safety requirements. But at Level 3 and above, Gould says children are receiving "educationally-oriented child care" — and the system is weighted to reward programming that fosters strong teacher-child interactions.

The Early Start Act is designed to prompt childcare providers not only to sign up to be rated, but to step up the quality of their services. By 2019, child care providers must have earned at least a "3" on the Early Achievers scale in order to continue accepting state child care subsidies.

But child care providers receiving higher ratings — in Levels 3, 4 or 5 — will be eligible for progressively higher subsidy amounts.

Is Making Ratings Mandatory A Problem?

Participation in Early Achievers is currently voluntary. Washington Department of Early Learning figures show 43 percent of the state's child care providers are enrolled in the rating program. In some counties, it's even lower; only 26 percent of Snohomish County's licensed providers have enrolled in the system, for example.

Lani Todd, legislative coordinator for the Service Employees International Union Local 925 — which counts child care workers among its membership — says she supports the goal of providing support for early learning. But she worries about linking access to state funds with participation in the state's rating program.

"Making a voluntary program [Early Achievers] mandatory this early in its implementation may further undermine child care access and affordability, particularly in rural areas of our state," Todd said in testimony before the House Appropriations Committee in February.

For instance, there are 10 or fewer licensed child care providers in a dozen of Washington's rural counties. In Jefferson County, there are eight. In Ferry County, there's only one. Todd says if these providers fail to sign up for Early Achievers, it could jeopardize access to early learning in vast geographic areas.

Will Early Learning 'Have To Fight Every Year' For Funding?

But the Early Start Act's fate now appears to be in the hands of the budget-writers. The Senate Republican Majority's spending proposal includes more than $55 million in state funding for the Early Start Act — less than half the state funding the Democrats' House budget proposes. (Both include an additional $26 million in federal funding.)

There are differences between House and Senate versions of the Early Start Act. Key among them, for Gould: a provision in the House bill that makes funding the changes permanent fixtures in the state budget. The Senate bill retains language allowing lawmakers to appropriate money to Early Start Act programs when it's available.

Gould says he considers the House version to be sufficient. He says it will end early childhood education advocates' push every two years to win funding from lawmakers for training, supplies and subsidies in Olympia.

"Those critical supports and the access to higher quality childcare that parents in Washington so badly want for their kids will become a standard part of early learning funding in Washington state. The funding isn't one-time, it's ongoing," Gould said.

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