Bureaucracy disrupts early education for some of the state’s most needy children.

Share story

Each year, thousands of Washington children lose their spots in child-care and early-education programs because of a change in family income that affects eligibility for a state subsidy.

Most of the affected families still need help, but they have to reapply to get it and that creates instability for children and providers and subverts the purpose of the program, which is to help the state’s most vulnerable be ready for success when they reach elementary school.

A bill before the Legislature would fix that if it survives the hectic last days of the session.

The program, administered by the Department of Early Learning, is called Working Connections Child Care and it helps 80,000 children statewide.

A survey done by the Washington State Association of Head Start & ECEAP of service providers who participate in the program described the impact of the current practices. They said that when families have to deal with subsidy issues, the child leaves care. Sometimes the child returns after the issues are resolved and sometimes not.

Joel Ryan, association executive director, told me the state is still treating child care like a welfare program when it should be seen as an early-education program. The emphasis shouldn’t be on policing access, but on making sure the program is available to families that need it and that it is effective.

What’s not effective is yanking children in and out of programs when their circumstances change temporarily. Justin Montermini, government and community relations manager with the Department of Early Learning, said, “Continuity of care is incredibly important to long-term outcomes.” He also said the affected families don’t make a lot of money and are dealing with jobs that are cyclical or unstable.

Lynda Popplewell, a single mother in Tacoma, has three sons, 4, 7 and 9. She told me she was kicked off the program three times while working for McDonald’s. One of those times she was hospitalized after losing a baby daughter. The other times were because even though she worked 40 hours her shifts changed and made her ineligible. She said, “I have to worry about whether I’m going to have child care next week or not.”

How much families pay as their share of the cost is determined by income, so they’re required to report any change in employment or other aid to the state, which then recalculates whether they are still eligible and how much they will be required to pay.

While that is happening, the subsidy is stopped, and in many cases the family can’t afford to keep the child in day care or preschool.

Some providers don’t participate in the program, or they limit subsidized slots because of the unpredictability. One told me she can’t figure out her budget accurately because she can’t depend on income from the state program lasting the year. And because she needs the income, if a child leaves she has to try to fill the spot. If the child comes back in a month, there may not be a place for her.

Ryan said all of that limits the availability of providers that will take children in the program. That’s especially true for providers at the higher end where there is a significant difference between the rate for private payers and the subsidized rate.

And, Ryan said, some of the centers or individual-care providers who take more children in the state program may not be able to pay teachers as well as places with a higher percentage of private payers. They may not be able to buy the best teaching resources or afford as much teacher training. All of that limits the benefits of the program.

Providers also complain about the amount of time staff has to spend dealing with the state on behalf of enrolled parents.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The state expects it will cost more if families are allowed to stay in the program an entire year, but isn’t keeping kids in high-quality care or education centers what we want from the program? Families would still have to be approved each year.

It’s possible a few parents would land well-paying jobs before the year was up and not report it. But that would be a small cost to pay for making the program more consistent and therefore more effective for a larger number of families.

Information in this article, originally published April 16, 2015 was corrected April 16, 2015. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the Washington Department of Social and Health Services administers the Working Connections Child Care program. DSHS determines eligibility for the program based on rules and policies overseen by the Department of Early Learning.