To reach its goal of getting 90 percent of the children in subsidized preschool and child care "kindergarten ready" by 2020, Washington state is requiring providers to reach a minimum level of quality.

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About 46 percent of the state’s licensed childcare providers have enrolled in Early Achievers, the state’s new rating system, according to a recent progress report from the state’s Department of Early Learning.

Early Achievers began in 2012 as a voluntary program but is now mandatory for providers receiving government subsidies. It aims to boost the quality of the state’s preschools and childcare centers, especially the ones serving low-income and minority children who often start kindergarten behind and struggle to catch up.

“We think that we can eliminate race as a predictor of school success, but only if we get kids to arrive in kindergarten with the same sort of skills that their more well-to-do peers tend to arrive with,” said DEL director Ross Hunter, the former state representative chosen last summer by Gov. Jay Inslee to lead the agency.

Early Achievers works like star ratings for hotels and  restaurants. Providers must be licensed and complete training to advance through the first two levels. Then they can seek a 3, 4 or 5 rating based a number of measures of quality, including observations of teachers’ interactions with children.

In June,  lawmakers passed the Early Start Act, which says that  licensed child care providers must, by 2020, reach a minimum level of 3 to be eligible — or continue to be eligible — for government subsidies.

So far, only about 18 percent of the participating providers with government subsidies have a rating that high.

Those providers fall into two main groups: the ones associated with Working Connections, which gives childcare vouchers to low-income working parents, and those who are part of the state’s own preschool program for low-income families.

Working Connections serves about 50,000 kids and childcare providers who take those vouchers will have to get at least a rating of 3 by 2020. As it stands now, about 22 percent of centers and 5 percent of home-based childcare receiving vouchers have reached that level.

The requirements are more stringent for the  state’s preschool program, which soon will require its providers to have a rating of 4 or higher.  That program already has a reputation for high quality. A 2014 study  by the Legislature’s research arm  found that children’s gains in reading and math persisted through fifth grade, a striking result given that many studies of government preschool programs have found that initial boosts fade out by around third grade.

About 11,000 kids are enrolled in that program now, and that’s expected to double by 2020, when all eligible parents will be guaranteed seats for their children.

Almost all of the state’s contractors for its preschool program are enrolled in Early Achievers, but as of July 31, only 24 percent had a rating of 4 or better.  They will have until March 1 to get that rating or they will have to undergo further training.

“The pace has to pick up a lot,” Hunter said.