Washington’s state-funded preschool program is one of only a handful in the country that increased available slots during the pandemic. But there’s a difference between having the funding to help a child and actually being able to do it.
Thousands of the state’s most in-need families are struggling to get their children into an early learning program, and a big part of the problem is the same thing hitting everything from airlines to restaurants — a lack of available workers.
Some providers aren’t operating at full capacity despite having plenty of interest, while others, like the Denise Louie Education Center in Seattle’s Chinatown International District, rely on staff who don’t normally work inside preschool classrooms to keep things going.
“We juggle staff from program to program, site to site,” executive director Susan Yang said.
The education center has reduced the number of children in some classrooms to maintain its student-to-staff ratios. Other providers have closed entire classrooms at a time, sometimes several.
The state’s Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program, or ECEAP, serves families with children between 3 and 5 years old who have special education needs, are in foster care or receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families grants. Data shows ECEAP, combined with Washington’s new Transitional Kindergarten program, grew overall capacity during the pandemic, providing funding for 1,505 new seats in the 2020-21 school year, climbing to just over 15,000 available slots statewide.
But the unique number of children served through ECEAP and the federally funded Head Start program — which provides support to families with children up to 5 years old — tell a different story.
The Washington State Association of Head Start and ECEAP indicates 29% fewer students were served through Head Start during the pandemic: 12,255 in 2021 compared with 17,242 in 2019. At the same time, 2,391 fewer students enrolled in ECEAP. Those numbers have picked back up this year, with 15,354 unique children enrolled, but that’s still lower than pre-pandemic levels.
Part of this decline could be explained by parents staying home with their children, but Joel Ryan, the state association’s executive director, also said staff shortages are driving the decrease in the number of children served.
He blames it on an economy transformed by the pandemic, an increasingly demanding workload for teachers, but mostly, on a chronic underfunding of early learning.
“We’re just not doing what we need to do to make sure all kids have a successful life,” he said, “and that of course starts with their caregivers.”
Early educators with a bachelor’s degree are paid nearly 22% less than K-8 teachers, and the poverty rate among early learning teachers in Washington is around 18%, according to a 2020 report from the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Child Care Employment.
That’s compared to a poverty rate of only about 8% among Washington’s overall workforce, and a poverty rate of a little more than 2% among the state’s K-8 teachers.
Add on the training and degree requirements, and Yang said it’s a hard sell to recruit preschool educators. “Folks who have degrees that are related to early childhood education are harder and harder to find,” she said.
Some providers are offering signing bonuses, or attempting to “grow their own” preschool teachers by recruiting parents and connecting them with training and job opportunities. Katy Warren, deputy director of Washington State Association of Head Start and ECEAP, said a program in Vancouver worked with the nearby community college so parents could earn the right credentials. But even when a program can hire, they often have a hard time retaining staff.
“Programs who are able to pay their staff a lot more … will have a lot lower turnover,” Warren said.
Of course the pandemic hasn’t helped. Many early education workers left as other businesses raised wages and strict COVID-19 protocols were put in place. Additional data from the center at Berkeley says preschool and child care programs across the country lost more than 116,000 workers during the pandemic, and that workforce remains at about 89% of what it was pre-COVID.
On top of low pay, preschool teachers are now also grappling with more behavioral and social demands from the children they work with. Some have missed out on essential development milestones.
“We have children who are showing up not potty trained yet,” said Ginger Williams, executive director of the Head Start program at Edmonds College. “We’re talking about 4-, 5-year-olds.”
Williams added that more students are being referred to the district for language delays or other special needs services, too.
Those are some of the same reasons why advocates say support for high-quality preschool programs is more vital now than ever. Both Head Start and the state program offer services to help families build parenting skills or find housing and essential items like diapers. Preschool is also an opportunity to prepare children socially and academically for kindergarten, with well-documented benefits on their brain development.
Marisela Chavez is a mom from Tacoma. She said she’s impressed with how social her 7-year-old twins are after going to preschool.
“I want all children to be enrolled in early learning programs regardless of their socioeconomic status,” she said. “It’s fundamental with their learning.”
Chavez said if it weren’t for the state’s ECEAP program, she wouldn’t have been able to go back to school to get her associate degree. But it’s difficult for families to access preschool programs for a number of reasons. Chavez said some experience language barriers. Some who are on the cusp of income eligibility want to pursue higher-earning jobs but can’t without losing critical subsidies.
That’s why she went to Washington, D.C., this spring with a group from the state association’s parent ambassador program, urging leaders to provide more money to educate children before they enter kindergarten — specifically for classroom teachers.
Washington is adding money and expanding its in-state programs — ECEAP and Transitional Kindergarten. State officials say ECEAP will become available to more families each year through 2026 when they expect all eligible children to have access to it. But Washington has a long way to go, with an estimated nearly 21,000 unserved eligible children statewide.
Steven Barnett, co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, said additional federal dollars could help Washington pick up the pace, hiring more educators at a time when the pandemic set the entire country back.
“It basically lost an entire decade of growth,” he said. “This is really devastating.”
Barnett wanted Congress to pass a big spending plan led by Democrats that would have in part provided more money for child care and preschool. It wasn’t advanced because of Republicans’ concerns about the price tag associated with its many provisions, but elected leaders like Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., say they want to move forward on some version of child care legislation.
“Even a little bit would make a huge difference,” Barnett said. “It would put us on a different path as a country than what we’re on now.”
Expansion and quality improvements are likely to continue in states like Washington, where lawmakers are making policy moves of their own. In 2021 the Legislature passed the Fair Start for Kids Act that, among other things, raised income limits so families qualify for more financial assistance.
But Barnett said progress in Washington state and across the country will be much slower without federal action.
In the meantime, Warren said if people want to become certified or figure out how to join the ranks of early educators, they can check out programs at their nearby community college.
Or, she said, they can visit their nearest preschool — they’re probably hiring.