EDUCATION and jobs. These two issues have been discussed extensively in the Washington state Legislature with little consensus about how to address either subject. Reforming one state-funded program, however, would offer the Legislature an opportunity to make progress on both challenges at the same time.
The Working Connections Child Care program provides affordable and reliable child care for low-income, working families. By participating in this program, working parents are able to earn money, pay taxes and avoid the use of other state services — the ideal scenario for the economy. The child care covered by Working Connections provides access to quality early-learning programs that would otherwise cost between one-third and one-half of an eligible family’s income.
The success of Working Connections, however, has been limited by its scope. There are 33,000 slots available in the program, but only 17,000 are currently taken because of eligibility requirements. The complexity of deciding who can participate in the program is curtailing access to the early-learning programs offered by these child-care providers. The current requirements prevent thousands of children from getting a strong start in life. They must be reformed so that it is more accessible and accountable.
Working Connections’ under-enrollment is causing financial challenges for many child-care providers, most of which are small- and medium-sized businesses that have little room for economic fluctuations. According to research from the Washington Budget and Policy Center, roughly 4,000 child-care providers have closed their doors in the past five years. When they close their doors our communities lose more than their services. We lose the jobs they provide and the revenue they contribute to local and state government.
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The high bar for entry is also limiting access to high-quality early learning, which provides the key building blocks for early cognitive development. Sustained interpersonal interactions, stable relationships and exposure to a variety of words, sounds and pictures, result in lower high-school dropout rates and greater success in postsecondary education. Without access to these early-learning foundations there is already an opportunity gap in literacy, math and social skills among 5-year-olds.
Optimizing the program would cost approximately $100,000 annually, but would generate millions in revenue from working parents and successful child-care businesses. Further, every dollar invested in early-learning programs will save taxpayers $7 in remedial education and social services.
In a late 2012 editorial, The Seattle Times called for the end of the K-12 paradigm and a new “3 to 23” way of thinking that embraces the ever-growing importance of early learning and postsecondary education.
The Working Connections program offers a way to make 3-to-23 education a reality while providing affordable care to low-income children so their parents can work or look for a job. It allows us to provide critical early-learning services and helps keep Washington citizens employed at the same time.
As a mother of two young children, ensuring working parents have access to high-quality child care regardless of their economic situation is a no-brainer. As a legislator, ensuring they do not have to choose between a job and their child’s well-being is a public-policy imperative. To help tackle the two biggest challenges facing our state, the Legislature should reform the Working Connections Child Care program to better serve Washington families.
State Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, serves as assistant deputy majority whip.