As the number of vaccinated Washingtonians rises and our state negotiates reopening, many of us are looking forward to getting back to our pre-pandemic lives. However, a new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows that even before the pandemic, many of Washington’s kids were not getting what they needed to learn and thrive.
The 2021 KIDS COUNT Data Book indicates that in terms of our children’s education, Washington is failing. Well over half of 3- and 4-year-olds in our state were not attending preschool in 2019, giving us a ranking of 23rd in the nation in this area. And within that number, children of color are disproportionately represented. Between 2015 and 2019, 66% of Latino and 63% of Black or African American young children in Washington were not in school, compared with 46% of Asian and Pacific Islander and 53% of white children.
The disparities in this data reflect how generations of racist policies and practices, like employment discrimination and redlining, have prevented people of color from earning higher incomes and generating wealth, and continue to create barriers to opportunity for many of our state’s kids. When families face formidable cost barriers to high-quality early learning, their children have fewer chances to form the stable bond with a caregiver that spurs more learning. The average price of preschool for a family with two young children is approximately half the annual median income of American Indian/Alaska Native, Black and Latinx families in Washington — far too high for any family that needs also to eat, keep a roof overhead and build assets for the future.
In the 2021 legislative session, Washington state lawmakers made progress toward mitigating the racial injustice embedded in our state’s upside-down tax code — which sees households with the lowest incomes pay 18% or more of their income toward state and local taxes, while the wealthiest pay only 3% or less — with important implications for child well-being. Together, the passage of the Working Families Tax Credit and the tax on extraordinary profits from capital gains, which will be paid by a fraction of the very wealthiest Washingtonians, represent the biggest improvement in Washington’s state tax code in at least 90 years. With the passing of these bills, 400,000 low- and middle-income Washington households and one in four Washington kids will see a boost in their family income every year.
Revenue from the capital gains excise tax is going to help fund historic investments in the Fair Start for Kids Act, which will support early learning and other services that kids and families need. From July 1, early learning providers who offer affordable care to working families through Working Connections Child Care (WCCC) will receive a substantial increase in subsidies. More families will get access to quality care as the eligibility for WCCC rises to 60% of state median income.
Children will get more support for their social and emotional health thanks to expanded funding to pair mental-health professionals with early childhood educators and families. And more changes, including expansions of quality pre-K via the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP), are on their way in coming months.
Investing in children, families and communities is crucial for an equitable recovery from the pandemic — and to ensure that our state truly addresses the racial inequities that cut off kids and families from the healthy futures they deserve. Fair Start for Kids taps the extraordinary profits of our state’s wealthy residents so that we all chip in to give kids what they need.
That’s the kind of Washington I want to live in — where we all do our share. Rather than have children suffer for our blithe tolerance of inequality, I want our state to pursue policies that offer every resident an opportunity, especially our youngest.
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.