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State of Preschool Yearbook

Photo courtesy NIEER

Report: How are Washington public preschools measuring up?

State invests in high-quality care, but too few have access

Editor’s Note: Each year the National Institute for Early Education Research takes an in-depth look at public preschool programs across the country and reports on state and national trends. The recently release report provides data to help families and organizations advocate for early education. You can access Washington’s state profile in the 2023 State of Preschool Yearbook on the NIEER interactive website. In the meantime, here are some highlights regarding state-funded preschool programs in Washington provided by Emily Mikkelsen, Early Learning Policy and Coalition manager for the statewide nonprofit advocacy group Children’s Alliance: 

It’s important to note that in Washington state, most young children are cared for privately, either by a family member or in private early learning programs. The 2023 State of Preschool Yearbook only focuses on states’ public preschool programs. Washington’s public preschool program is called the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP). Children who attend private preschool, Head Start (which is funded by the federal government), or only receive special education services (but not ECEAP) are not included in this report. As a result, the information in this report is helpful in understanding how Washington is doing as a state to provide a preschool program as a public service; however, there are many other ways families can access preschool.  

Washington is investing in high-quality early learning through ECEAP. 

ECEAP meets 9 out of 10 benchmarks for high-quality early learning. Although the report recommends more formal training for preschool teachers, it also notes that Washington is generally providing high-quality preschool through ECEAP. ECEAP has small classes (no more than 20 students), with at least one teacher for every 10 children. There are also efforts in place to make sure that ECEAP is comprehensive and uses data to help identify areas of improvement. 

Across the country, Washington is ranked 5th for per-child funding for children enrolled in the state public preschool program. In 2023, that was estimated at about $13,500 per child. That’s just over 82% of the amount NIEER estimates is needed to cover the true cost of high-quality child care and sets Washington apart as a leader in funding its preschool program for students who are already enrolled. 

State-funded preschool remains inaccessible for most families. 

Washington state ranks 33rd in accessibility for 4-year-olds, or in the bottom 40% of all states. Although Washington has made early learning more of a legislative priority in recent years, most families with young children still do not have access to public preschool. 

In fact, the vast majority of 3- and 4-year-olds in Washington are not enrolled in Washington’s ECEAP preschool program, and there is a substantial gap between Washington and the U.S. average for 4-year-old enrollment. Many states have moved towards expanding access to allow most or all 4-year-olds to attend state-funded preschool/pre-kindergarten. However, 84% of our state’s 4-year-olds are not enrolled in ECEAP.  

ECEAP has strict income limits, commonly 36% of the state median income. Within these limits, DCYF estimates that a family of 3 would need to make $36,408 or less to qualify for ECEAP.

A lack of access exacerbates early learning gaps and inequity in education. State data show that Black and Latino families enroll in ECEAP programming at higher rates compared to Asian/Pacific Islander, White, and Indigenous families. However, DCYF reports that less than 40% of eligible children are enrolled in ECEAP in the 2023-2024 school year. There simply are not enough spaces available.

No data on private preschools

Notably, the report does not cover private preschool programs. However, the gap in state-funded preschool leaves parents of young children to make challenging financial decisions to either pay high costs of private preschool or enlist a family member or friend to care for their children at home. By 2019, the median cost for private preschools exceeded $11,000 per year for each child. 

NIEER estimates it would cost $988 million to fund universal preschool for all of Washington’s 4-year-olds and meet the quality guidelines discussed in the report.  

What did policymakers do in 2024? 

The 2024 session was a supplemental budget year. Although we still have a lot of work to do, policymakers took impactful steps that will benefit families and children across the state, including: 

  • Simplifying child care subsidy requirements for families receiving food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) 
  • Expanding Working Connections Child Care (WCCC) eligibility to help more child care teachers qualify for subsidies to enroll their own children in high-quality early learning programs 
  • Supporting early intervention services by adjusting how the state counts Early Support for Infants and Toddlers (ESIT) services to help ensure children and providers have access to sustainable funding 
  • Investing in early learning infrastructure by improving funding awards through the Early Learning Facilities (ELF) program 
  • Making background checks more accessible by increasing the number of locations for applicants who are applying to early learning positions 

Why Early Childhood Education? 

Early childhood care and education is important to equity and child well-being. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) explains that early childhood education helps young children establish a strong foundation for their lifelong development of mental health, social skills, reading, math, and complex problem-solving. Preschools provide a safe community for children to play, explore, and learn.  

Preschool is also an important space to identify children who may need early intervention support.  Zero to Three estimates that approximately 1 in 6 young children experience a developmental delay, and early learning spaces can both help ensure that children get the support they need when they need it. 

What about the rest of the United States? 

On the national level, funding remains a challenge. Preschool programs are not available to every child, and those that are most often do not meet high quality standards.  

Unfortunately, preschool education remains underfunded across the country. When we consider rising costs of all goods and services (i.e., inflation), real spending for each preschooler has remained essentially the same for about 20 years; meanwhile, K-12 funding per student has increased by about 30%.  

NIEER estimates that it would take a $30 billion nationwide investment to provide high-quality pre-kindergarten for 90% of 4-year-olds. In the meantime, many families across the country are struggling to find reliable care and education for their youngest children. 

 Read more:

Becoming a Parent Advocate 

Progress made, but far more to do for kids

Turn on the Subtitles to boost kids’ literacy

 

About the Author

Emily Mikkelsen / Children’s Alliance