The importance of establishing a firm foundation in education can’t be overstated. That’s why during the week of March 22, 12 parents from the Washington State Parent Ambassadors Program traveled to Washington, D.C. to demand that Congress boost funding for early education programs like Washington State’s Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP). They are calling on federal lawmakers to prioritize the needs of young children, families and the early childhood workforce.
That kids need to get to kindergarten ready and able to learn is the guiding principle behind ECEAP (the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program), one arm of Washington’s state-funded kindergarten readiness program. The program takes a holistic approach to kindergarten readiness by addressing the myriad needs of preschoolers, including medical and dental care, nutrition, coaching services, and more. Currently ECEAP serves approximately 12,000 of the state’s most vulnerable kids and their entire families.
A gap widened
ECEAP-eligible children from low-income families have fewer advantages than kids from higher-income homes. The program strives to bridge that gap and to disconnect household income from life outcomes like graduation rates, higher education, career, and physical and mental health.
The group of parents that made the D.C. trip hope to make such discrepancies clear. Rayna Espinosa Ives, a Bremerton mom recently highlighted as a Seattle’s Child Unsung Hero, is a trip participant.
“This trip is so important to me and our Tribal community on the Port Gamble S’Klallam Reservation,” said Espinosa Ives said in a release. “It is an opportunity to use my voice and experiences so people can understand why it is crucial to provide more funding in early childhood programs.”
Programs like ECEAP not only help kids, they support parents’ ability to work. However, the early learning sector has suffered historic disinvestment and low pay in the last few decades. In addition, young participants in Washington’s ECEAP program were hit hard by COVID-19 pandemic, which widened the developmental gap between them and kids from higher-income families, according to the Washington State Association of Head State & ECEAP.
The new data shows that nearly 40% of children in the program were below developmental age level in Fall 2022, compared to 20% in 2019.
Families of color hurt most
That statistic is yet another indicator of the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on very low-income children and families—particularly families of color, which make up 68% of families served by ECEAP. The data shows significant changes in kids served in the program’s preschools last year compared to those enrolled before before the pandemic, including:
- Two years after the peak of the pandemic, fewer children are arriving to the program potty trained, requiring more adults in the classroom to ensure safety and quality of care
- Children arriving in ECEAP classrooms post-pandemic are now coming with less experience in cooperative play, sharing, and communication with other children. This leads to the need for teachers to modify the curriculum and find new ways to support children in the classroom by providing more one-on-one assistance;
- More kids are arriving in ECEAP classrooms lacking the social-emotional skills to operate within a group, leading to behavior issues that require individual attention and safety measures.
“I think the COVID pandemic is very much like a hurricane”, said Joel Ryan, executive director of the WSA. The report, he said “shines a light on the inequalities and how children are doing. And at the same time, it also made things worse.”
Concern about kids socio-emotional growth
Ryan is, of course, concerned about ECEAP preschoolers’ academic preparedness, but he said he is especially worried about the ways the pandemic stunted their socio-emotional growth. ECEAP teachers report that about a quarter of students in their post-pandemic classrooms regularly exhibit negative behaviors not seen before the pandemic. Teachers throughout the Puget Sound region reported more instances of children throwing chairs, biting teachers, running away, destroying equipment, and tearing at walls.
A call for more funding
WSA is calling on state lawmakers to increase ECEAP funding to provide teachers and staff the resources they need to provide behavioral and mental health interventions and to hire, train and retain professionals for high-needs classrooms.
The association is also pushing for increased salaries for ECEAP staff – on average, kindergarten teachers earn nearly $20,000 more than ECEAP teachers, despite similarities in education level and pedagogical responsibility.
If the funding increase is approved by the Washington State Legislature during the current session, ECEAP would also put more money toward specialized curriculum and professional development and move more kids from half-day to full-day classrooms. Currently, half of ECEAP preschoolers are on the half-day schedule. Consistency and stability are important for youth, Ryan said, and providing individualized care for the most high-needs young people is a goal of WSA. The 2023 legislative session ends on April 23.
Parent advocate Espinosa Ives is particularly interested in seeing new funding to create culturally relavent and equitable early learning environments.
“More funding is critical to bring back land-based learning for our youngest indigenous children,'” Espinosa Ives said. “The outdoors reconnects our children with our ancestors teachings, language, songs, dances and more. We need more funding to make that happen and to keep our programs open.”
Dealing with the wake
As recovery from the pandemic years continues, low-income families have the furthest to go, Ryan said. They deserve more federal and state support.
“Now that the hurricane is kind of receding, it’s really left a disaster in its wake,” Ryan said. “One group that has felt the destruction of this hurricane are very low-income children, ages 0 to 5, and their families. I’m trying to make sure lawmakers see that and address it.”
The Department of Children, Youth & Families has found that children who participate in ECEAP are more likely than other low-income children to be ready for kindergarten and to be up-to-date on well-child exams, dental screenings, and other health indicators. ECEAP assesses kids’ developmental progress in May and November and the Department has found that most children achieve more than six months of progress in their learning and development between assessments.
ECEAP helps whole families
Additionally, their families make substantial gains in resilience and economic security through the program. A 2014 report by the the Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that the impact of ECEAP on later student test scores was near twice the average effect of regular pre-K programs in other states. A 2022 WSIPP study using improved methodology, however, found no clear evidence that 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade assessments were any better or worse for ECEAP participants. According to that study:
“Compared to eligible children who did not participate in ECEAP, ECEAP participants are more likely to be kindergarten-ready and less likely to participate in special education in early school years. These findings are consistent with recent literature on the impact of early childhood education programs but differ from our findings from an earlier evaluation of ECEAP.”
Despite such positives, the program is struggling to sustain current service levels. Lack of funding, high turnover among staff, staff vacancy rates, and growing child-to-teacher ratios all hinder ECEAP from providing services for preschoolers.
Waiting for lawmakers to act
Advocates of the ECEAP program are anxiously awaiting the release of the proposed 2023-2025 biennium budgets from the Washington State House of Representatives and Senate next week.
“While there are no bills focused solely on ECEAP this legislative session, there are a number of promising budget requests that would provide funding for the program,” says Dr. Stephan Blanford, Executive Director of Children’s Alliance. “These include investments in the ECEAP Complex Needs fund, which supports providers serving children with unique needs; increasing and expanding ECEAP slots, which would result in more access to care for families, and better compensation for child care providers; and sustained funding for Early ECEAP, which would ensure that families with babies 0 to 3 have access to quality early learning.
A parent’s experience
Parents who rely on the program are also pushing lawmakers to increase ECEAP funding.
Nikki Mogush, a Longview, Washington mother of three, said she knows firsthand the ongoing impacts of the pandemic ECEAP eligible kids and has witnessed staffing shortages. She believes teachers deserve a raise.
“They don’t get paid enough to do what they do,” Mogush said.
Lack of funding and loss of teachers has led to yet another program challenge: not enough slots for eligible children.
Mogush’s 3-year-old has aged out of ECEAP’s home-based learning program which supports kids and families from the prenatal stage to age 3. Currently, however, there are no openings for her child in an ECEAP preschool. Still, Mogush appreciates the program.
“ECEAP has really changed all of my kids’ lives,” she said. “I can’t say enough good things about the program. They’re really helpful, with anything. My oldest was in ECEAP…she still talks about [her] teacher. And just to see how much she impacted my child’s life [is wonderful].”
*Seattle’s Child Managing Editor Cheryl Murfin contributed to this article.
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