Washington is emerging as a leader in adopting effective early childhood policies and strategies over the past year, according to a new national report.

The accolades come after state lawmakers greatly expanded child care initiatives the 2021 Legislative session by passing the Fair Start for Kids Act. The state is also shifting its focus to making the business of child care more sustainable for providers. 

“What Washington has done has been pretty amazing. It’s among a handful of states that have made huge investments in childhood development,” said Cynthia Osborne, an associate dean for academic strategies at The University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs. The school runs the Prenatal-to-3 Policy Impact Center. 

The center issued its state-by-state Prenatal-to-3 State Policy Roadmap last week at a virtual national summit. The blueprint outlines five research-based policies and six strategies that support the health and education of infants and toddlers in high-quality care settings, reduce barriers like out-of-pocket costs for child care and provide pathways for providers to earn a living wage that covers their business costs. 

Washington is one of eight states that has implemented four of the five policies that the Prenatal-to-3 Policy Impact Center considers most effective. They are: expanding income eligibility for health insurance, simplifying the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) certification and renewal process, offering paid family leave and adopting a state minimum wage of at least $10. (The wage is currently $13.69). 

Next year, the center will officially recognize the state for implementing the fifth recommendation, Washington’s recently passed working families tax credit, the state’s equivalent of a refundable federal earned income tax credit designed to support low-income families and individuals. 


This report also comes at a time when federal legislators are weighing President Joe Biden’s $3.5 trillion rebuilding plan, which includes free, universal prekindergarten programs, an expanded child tax credit and capping the out-of-pocket cost of child care to no more than 7% of a family’s earnings. 

Washington offers and is expanding child care subsidies and early Head Start options, two of the six most effective evidence-driven strategies, according to the Roadmap. The other four recommendations include: adopting comprehensive screening and connection programs, group prenatal care, evidence-based home visiting programs and early intervention services.

According to the report and state data, Washington had 84,895 births in 2019 and has 268,540 children under age 3. 

Osborne said these policies and strategies are all linked to decreasing racial, ethnic and income disparities in positive opportunities and outcomes for the nation’s youngest children. 

State Sen. Claire Wilson, D-Auburn, who has been advocating these policies and practices, said building understanding and consensus during the last Legislative session led to the passage of the state’s Fair Start for Kids Act in May. She worked with Rep. Tana Senn, D-Mercer Island, to introduce the bill in both houses of the Legislature. But the bill was not without opponents, who cited concerns about funding and overregulation. 

The state is looking at multiple sources of funding for these initiatives. It’s currently using some $300 million in federal pandemic relief funding to, in part, provide child care stabilization grants intended to help centers stay open. A new capital gains tax is expected to bring in around $400 million in net revenue annually, which will help the state budget for early childhood programs under Fair Start for Kids. The law would take effect in January, with the first returns due in 2023. 


The tax, however, is being contested in courts over its constitutionality, and the case could ultimately be heard by the state Supreme Court. Wilson said in an email that the Fair Start funding “is not contingent on the capital gains tax revenue being collected, and it will be funded regardless of what the courts decide.” If found unconstitutional, the state will have to fund the early childhood programs out of its general fund. 

The Fair Start Act aims to make child care more accessible and affordable. It includes a new measure to use state median income instead of federal poverty level data in determining a family’s eligibility for child-care assistance. A family of four that earns up to $5,139 per month, about 60 percent of the state median income, can qualify for assistance, starting this month. As of Oct. 1, the bill capped eligible families’ copays at $115 per month, with some families paying even less. 

Child Care Aware Washington CEO Deeann Burtch Puffert said the subsidy is “a huge change” for child care. She said using the state median income is an improved metric, but using regional median income would better account for the differences between, for example, a higher cost-of-living area like Seattle and a lower cost area like Colville. 

“With that, in addition to the child tax credit, we’re starting to see significantly positive impacts for families in Washington,” Burtch Puffert said.   

Both Wilson and Osborne said an outpouring of stories of how families were affected by child care shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic and how providers were affected by closures helped bring attention to the need for more supportive legislation. 

“You couldn’t find care. Suddenly there was an urgency, and with urgency came empathy,” Wilson said. “People also started to realize this was an issue of economic recovery. Families can’t go to work if they have no places for their children to be.” 


Osborne said Washington is also the first state to enact legislation to help prevent the negative effects of trauma on the development of infants and young children, such as the rise of household instability and stress due to the pandemic.

In addition to Washington’s recently adopted policies and its Head Start and Early Childhood Education and Assistance Programs (ECEAP), Osborne said the state’s Early ECEAP for birth to age 3 families is also a notable investment in a solution to provide more care options. Over the next several years, the state has budgeted $712 million in federal funds for early childhood programs. The Fair Start for Kids Act made the Early ECEAP, piloted in 2019, a permanent program with a $3.8 million investment in state funds for program expansion, Wilson said. 

“They are proving that you can do these things, that you can invest in early childhood and make a difference,” Osborne said of Washington’s leadership with early childhood policies.  

The bipartisan Washington Child Care Collaborative Task Force, which Wilson and Senn are a part of, layered the roadmap into its policy recommendations to not only reduce the burden of out-of-pocket costs for families, but to increase support to child care providers to cover the true costs of running centers and recruiting and retaining staff. 

Low wages were reported to be a major challenge to staff retention in a July survey conducted by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. In that survey of 7,500 providers, 80% reported experiencing staffing shortages before receiving state and federal relief funds. According to May 2020 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual mean wage for Washington child care workers was $33,330. The Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California at Berkeley reported that the 2019 median wage for child care workers in Washington was $14.57. In comparison, the median wage for kindergarten teachers was $35.98. 

“These are not living wage jobs. They’re pathways to poverty,” Wilson said of child care worker salaries.  

The Washington child care task force is currently building a report on the costs of high-quality care. Its findings and recommendations are due next November. 

Correction: This article has been updated to correctly describe Washington’s new working families tax credit.