Washington’s preschool system ranks below most other states, report finds • Washington State Standard – Washington State Standard

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Washington’s access to quality preschool services falls below many other states, only serving 16% of four-year-olds and 8% of three-year-olds, a new national report found. 

The National Institute for Early Education Research released its annual preschool report last week and found Washington’s preschool access ranked 33rd for four-year-olds and 17th for three-year-olds. 

The report also found that despite its low rankings for access, Washington scores fairly well for funding for the child care sector, ranking eighth for state spending. But despite the spending, families still struggle to find care. 

“Washington’s preschool program is far short of what the state’s leaders in Congress have proposed for the nation. As hope for federal action has faded, a new wave of western states – California, Hawaii, Colorado, and New Mexico – have developed universal preschool initiatives,” said W. Steven Barnett, NIEER’s senior co-director. “Will leaders in Washington State also step forward with a similar plan to guarantee access to quality preschool for every child in Washington?”

According to the report, Washington’s Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program, which funds child care slots for 3- and 4-year-olds, added 801 children in the 2022-2023 school year. The state’s Transitional Kindergarten, for 4- and 5-year-olds, added more than 2,100 children during the 2022-2023 school year, thanks in part to an increase in state funding to the program. 

Still, Washington’s access for both programs ranked lower than many other states. 

Genevieve Stokes, director of government relations at Child Care Aware of Washington, said it is very discouraging that Washington is lagging behind in preschool access. 

“This report is highlighting the great need in this state,” Stokes said. “We really need to be looking at where we’re leaving out all of our families and children that don’t have access to care and all of our providers who can’t make the business pencil out.” 

Although the report makes good points about Washington’s preschool system, Stokes said, it also leaves out some important things. It only looks at a specific population of the child care system, she said, and it doesn’t look at access or funding for children from birth to three years old or five years or older. Looking only at preschool can leave out a lot of details and could be why Washington ranked so high for spending but still so low for access, she added. 

Lawmakers have made record investments into the child care system in recent years, but despite an increase in slots for families, little has been done to improve pay and benefits for providers and staff. That can leave open slots at schools that aren’t fully staffed up. 

Dana Christiansen, board member of the Washington Childcare Centers Association and owner of two centers in Clark County, said providers are continuing to close down because they don’t have staff or because it’s become too expensive to operate them. It was a problem that has existed for years but was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Child care just isn’t available for families right now,” she said. “Washington is still in crisis. You can’t find care, and tuition costs are through the roof.” 

Christiansen called on the Legislature to do more to support providers, which she said are overregulated and underfunded. 

Last year, the Washington Childcare Centers Association pushed for bills to give providers more flexibility to meet state training and professional development requirements, remove licensing fees for providers and offer benefits like free child care to preschool teachers, but none of these proposals passed this session. 

Christiansen said they will continue to push for these proposals in 2025. 

Stokes said Child Care Aware will also continue to push lawmakers for more support for a liveable wage for providers as well as access to benefits like health care and professional development opportunities. 

The goal is to have a universal child care system where families don’t pay more than 7% of their income on child care, but Stokes said that also has to come with liveable wages for providers, and those investments could be expensive. 

“We have to figure out how to get to those two things: living wages and benefits for providers and finding ways to make care affordable,” she said.

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