Washington needs to a move a lot faster to meet a self-imposed deadline to enroll all eligible children in preschool by 2022-23, a new report on the state of preschool nationwide suggested.
But as state lawmakers consider measures to boost enrollment, advocates stressed that preschool providers need more money to offer competitive salaries for teachers amid pay hikes in neighboring K-12 schools and a rising minimum wage.
“Most (of our teachers) qualify for child-care subsidies themselves and often food stamps,” said Katy Warren, deputy director of the Washington State Association of Head Start and Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program.
Warren advocates on behalf of the state’s preschool program, which helps children from low-income families get ready for kindergarten.
Lawmakers first created the program more than three decades ago, but they didn’t make it an entitlement until 2010. That meant all eligible kids were supposed to have access to the program by this school year, although lawmakers later punted that deadline to 2022-23.
The report, released Wednesday by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University in New Jersey, credited Washington for getting halfway to that goal by 2016-17. Since then, the state has added seats for 1,800 additional children — but that progress is insufficient, the report said.
It found that the state will need “much larger annual increases” to meets the 2022-23 deadline.
But until the end of this legislative session, it’s hard to say how quickly the state will be able to expand the early education offering.
Warren’s organization has urged lawmakers to add 1,075 slots to the preschool program. The House went beyond that request and proposed paying for a total of 1,464 new spots. The Senate, meanwhile, aims for about half that at 760.
Lawmakers also have overwhelmingly supported two pieces of legislation — Senate Bill 5089 and Senate Bill 5437 — that would expand eligibility for younger students with a disability and more low-income families.
As for salaries, the new report revealed that public preschool teachers in Washington earn about $16,000 less than their counterparts in elementary schools. At private schools, that gap amounts to $24,000.
Both the House and Senate have included more money for preschool providers to spend on better salaries, but neither chamber went as far as Warren’s group had requested.
Warren said, “It’s been a bit of a letdown this year.”