A new report ranks Washington near the top for how much it spends per student enrolled in preschool. But the percentage of 4-year-olds enrolled has barely budged in 15 years and falls below the national average.

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Washington spends more than most states on its preschool program for 3- and 4-year-olds, but tight rules on which families are eligible to apply have kept enrollment significantly below the U.S. average for at least 15 years.

That’s according to a new “state of preschool” report from the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). Since NIEER began tracking preschool funding and enrollment in 2002, the amount Washington spends per student has increased from $6,619 to $8,239 last year — the fourth-highest amount among the 50 states and District of Columbia.

Enrollment in Washington’s preschool program, however, has barely budged over the past 15 years and falls below the national average.

What’s behind that trend, and what does the new report tell us about the quality of preschool classrooms in the Evergreen State? We spoke to NIEER and some early-learning advocates in Washington to find out.

What the data (and experts) tell us

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Between 2002 and 2017, national enrollment of 4-year-olds in state-funded preschool programs rose from 14 percent to 33 percent. In Washington, the share of enrolled 4-year-olds only grew from 6 percent in 2002 to 8 percent last year.

(For 3-year-olds, Washington mirrored the national average, with 5 percent enrolled in preschool last year.)

But NIEER founder and co-director Steve Barnett cautioned the enrollment growth across the U.S. may have come at the cost of quality in expanding preschool programs.

“It’s going to take us a very, very long time — certainly not within my lifetime at the current pace — to reach every child in every state,” Barnett said during a conference call with reporters last month.

“And yet we don’t prioritize quality to ensure that programs are highly effective for kids,” he added. “That varies wildly by state, and some states are up there emphasizing quality but not the majority of them.”

In its report, NIEER grades each state on 10 measures of quality in its preschool program: Do states cap class sizes at 20 students or lower? Are teachers required to get specialized training in early-childhood education?

Only five states met all 10 bench marks last year, while Washington met eight. NIEER docked the preschool program here — formally known as the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP) — for not requiring teachers to have a bachelor’s degree or to complete 15 hours of training each year.

What the data don’t tell us

Katy Warren, deputy director of the Washington State Association of Head Start & ECEAP, noted the new report may not compare apples to apples across all states.

In Washington, for example, the state’s budget for preschool — $96 million for 2016-17 — does not include what local school districts spend to support the program.

The NIEER report also doesn’t reveal which children miss out on ECEAP because of its strict eligibility rules. In Washington, families only qualify for subsidized preschool if they earn less than 110 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $27,600 for a family of four.

“That’s a really big difference from other states in the way that we operate our program, and it’s one of the reasons we have that low access,” Warren said.

Last year, her organization lobbied the Washington Legislature to raise eligibility to 185 percent of the poverty line, but the idea never gained traction. Lawmakers, however, did approve some flexibility in the income limit this year to allow families earning above the 110 percent level to qualify for preschool if they are homeless or face other risks.

“That was like a baby step,” said Joel Ryan, executive director with Warren’s organization. “There are thousands of kids who are slightly above the income guidelines.”

But even based on the current eligibility rules, the Legislature still hasn’t funded enough preschool slots to enroll all eligible children. It has set a deadline to reach that goal by the 2022-23 school year and would need to enroll about 1,800 more students each year to meet that goal.

Other concerns remain

Beyond enrollment, early-learning advocates have more concerns on their priority list.

For Warren’s part, she wants to see more state funding for preschool providers to pay their teachers better. She said the average salary for ECEAP teachers with a bachelor’s degree is about $33,000 in Washington.

“It’s really hard to recruit and retain staff on that … and the most important thing in that classroom is that teacher,” Warren said.

She and Ryan also hope the Legislature loosens the income limit for ECEAP, with some flexibility for families living on tribal lands and for relatives supporting children whose parents can’t raise them.

“There’s a host of holes, and mostly it’s because we define eligibility based on income as the primary vehicle,” Ryan said. “And that leaves out a lot of families whose kids could really benefit from high-quality early learning opportunities.”