Washington State Early Learning & Care: Where Historic Underinvestment Meets National Health Crisis

Washington state's child care and early education systems were already in crisis before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that these systems have been further strained, what can be done to bolster and reimagine early learning to provide the high-quality care and positive learning interactions children need for positive outcomes in school and beyond?


The Issues:

Washington state is home to some of the most successful companies in the world. When you survey the landscape and forecasted labor market, some of the most promising pathways to family-sustaining wage jobs are in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM. The challenge is, not all students are afforded important STEM education opportunities—these gaps are especially wide for students of color, students from rural and low-income backgrounds, and girls. Washington STEM’s goal is for all children to have the opportunity to enjoy and develop STEM skills so that we can help ensure students from historically underserved communities have access to the opportunity STEM brings and share in our community’s prosperity.

To get there, young children need environments that spark and nurture their creativity allowing them to test their ideas. They need caregivers who engage their innate curiosity and expand their problem-solving capacity. There are three key ingredients to early childhood that are predictive of success and happiness in school and life:

  • Positive relationships and language rich interactions with caregivers lead to positive behavior, self-confidence, learning outcomes and relationships with others in school and beyond
  • High-quality learning environments lead to positive learning and behavior outcomes in school and beyond

photo of child in mother's lap

These experiences are the foundation upon, and the context within, which young children learn and enjoy mathematics, science, and any other content area. Early mathematics learning is especially important because it is predictive of later learning outcomes. Children who start strong in math, stay strong in math, and outperform their peers in literacy too. The goal is to ensure that every child in our state has consistent access to all three key ingredients and opportunities for joyful and engaging STEM learning.

These ingredients are provided through a care infrastructure which includes family members, neighbors and friends, and child care providers & early childhood educators who support children through nurturing relationships and engaging learning opportunities. Child care is a critical element of this infrastructure, yet prior to the onset of the pandemic, working families struggled to access affordable, quality, reliable care. Months into this national crisis, challenges faced by families and child care providers are growing and may soon become insurmountable without a bold commitment and investment in children and those that care for them here in our state.

The State of Early Care

Before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the state of early care and education was already in crisis. Approximately 314,000 children under the age of five in our state live in a family with all parents in the workforce; however, prior to COVID, there were only 154,380 licensed child care spots available statewide for that age group—that’s 51% of children under five without even the possibility for licensed care. Many families opt for care with family, friends, and neighbors; however, this care has little support from our state systems, can be inconsistent, and is of unknown quality. These often-informal arrangements are particularly fraught when an increasing number of family, friends, and neighbors are experiencing financial instability and difficulties managing their own household health concerns amid a pandemic.

Families that do use licensed care—that is, they send their child to a licensed family child care home or center-based child care programs—have to compete in an open market where scarcity of spots can drive up prices; especially for children aged birth to three. This leads to long wait lists and can cause parents to accept any available child care spot, with little power to choose based on quality or how the program meets their family’s needs. The situation becomes even more dire for lower income families, who either cannot afford the price of many of the child care programs on their own, or who participate in the Working Connection Child Care (WCCC) subsidy program and then have to find child care programs that will accept it.

For example, a family with one infant and one preschooler in Southwest Washington making $57,636 is just over the limit ($57,624) to qualify for the WCCC subsidy program, and can spend an average of $23,784 a year on child care, a staggering 41% of their income.  A similar family that does qualify by making $57,624 would still spend up to $8,964 per year in their co-pay, a daunting 16% of their limited income. Currently, only 15% of those who qualify, or 25,000 households, participate in the WCCC subsidy program. One of the barriers to increased participation is the co-pay; low-income families simply cannot afford the expense for licensed child care even when subsidized, and thereby are not given the opportunity to choose care from this source.

For the poorest children, those in families making $28,815 or less for a family of four (110% of the federal poverty line), Washington state’s Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP), as well as federal programs like Early Head Start and Head Start, are designed to provide wrap-around support to children and families. These supports are shown to provide the positive relationships, language rich interactions, and engaging environments that children need. But again, these programs only reach some of the children they are designed to support. In 2019, only 52% of eligible children accessed ECEAP or Head Start.  Another challenge is that income eligibility is the same no matter where a child lives in the state. In more expensive regions, King County for example, many families may make over the limit, yet, because of the cost of living, still have the same quality of life as those that make under the limit in another less expensive region. Instead of one blanket eligibility based on the federal poverty line (used now), a regional and more nuanced approach to income eligibility using the area median income would be more equitable.

Disproportionality for Families of Color and Non-English Speaking Families

Families of color face disproportionate barriers to accessing and affording quality care. The statewide average income of householders who are Black ($56,250), Indigenous ($51,307), and Latinx ($59,350) in comparison to White ($79,556) puts them on unequal ground when searching and paying for care. This is due either to the high proportion of income that would have to go to care, or because they are more likely to use WCCC subsidies, which are accepted at only a portion of the child care programs.

Meanwhile, children whose families primarily speak a language other than English participate in state funded programs far less often than their peers. While non-English speaking children are 52% of the children eligible for ECEAP, they make up only 33% of the children served in the program. And, while non-English speaking children are 43% of those that qualify for the Working Connections subsidy, they are a mere 11% of those that participate. Parent choice is, of course, a factor in participation; however, language barriers may prevent some parents from knowing about or fully understanding available resources, leading then to lower participation rates. Another factor among immigrant families may be fear of participation in programs that might put their status at risk. For those who are undocumented, sharing personal information to participate in a state funded program can present felt or real risks—they may fear the exposure of their immigration status and possible deportation. Barriers related to economic power, language access, and fear of government must be dismantled if we are to build an equitable early learning system for all children and families.

Disproportionality for Women

The accessibility of child care also has disproportionate impacts on women compared to men. Women’s career and earning opportunities are more frequently and profoundly impacted by the caregiving needs of their families. Mothers are more likely than fathers to not take a job or career advancement due to the cost or availability of quality child care, and women are three times more likely to quit a job so they can provide care for a family member. While many mothers report that they do not regret choosing to stay home with children, they also report recognizing that this hurt their careers overall. In Washington state, the median income for women ($37,869) is only 75% of that of men ($50,845), in part due to the time many women take away from the workplace in order to care for children.

On the other hand, for many families, having one parent stay home is not an option. More than 60% of children ages five and under live in a household where all available parents work. Of these households, 24% are led by single mothers. Most families depend on women participating in the workforce, whether or not they would rather stay home with their children, and the livelihoods of these families further depend on their ability to access child care. With only enough child care for 40% of the children who need it in our state, many families are competing for child care spots. This means that the care they end up getting might not meet their needs (i.e. is far away, is too expensive), or may be unlicensed, of unknown quality, and have little oversight or support.

The Early Learning Workforce

The younger children are, the more critical it is to their development to receive high-quality, culturally responsive, and family-focused care. In Washington state, early childhood educators are uniquely qualified to meet the needs of young children. Ninety percent of all assessed child care and education programs receive a “Quality” rating from the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF), and all educators are required to participate in ongoing, competency based, professional development. Early childhood educators are notably diverse in comparison to K-12 educators. Of the more than 37,000 early childhood educators in our state, 41% are people of color, and 48% are bilingual. The diversity of early childhood educators is an irreplaceable asset and contributes to more culturally responsive care for the diverse population of young children in our state.

While early childhood educators are an invaluable resource, they have been relegated to second-class status in terms of compensation. Early childhood educators make far less than their K-12 peers, even when accounting for level of education. Nationwide in 2012, a child care teacher who had a bachelor’s degree made $32,427 a year, 40% less than a kindergarten teacher with similar credentials, who made $54,230. This gap in compensation widens even further when you consider that few early educators receive any additional benefits as compared with their K-12 peers, who have access to health care, a pension, and other forms of compensation like paid time off. With no significant investment in the compensation of this workforce since 2012, it is almost certain this gap has not closed. Nearly 50% of early childhood educators in our state have wages so low they qualify for public assistance, such as Medicaid, and 25% of these low-wage educators qualify for food assistance (for a family with one adult and one child).

The low pay of early educators is driven in large part by the fact that their salaries are dependent on tuition paid by families. Though the cost of child care can be up to 35% of a working family’s income, the early care and education workforce is not getting rich. The margins in the child care business are razor thin and this sector of the education workforce is essentially subsidizing the true costs of care with their low wages. They provide an economic benefit to the communities that depend on them by providing care so that parents can go to work, yet they rarely reap the benefits of their economic contribution.

Impacts of COVID-19 on Child Care: Fewer Spots, Increased Expectations

All of this was true before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result of the pandemic, according to Child Care

Aware of Washington, 16% of the child care programs in our state have closed their doors, many permanently, representing a loss of nearly 30,000 child care spots. At a time when many families are returning to work, and when many K-12 schools are shifting away from in-person instruction, the care they need more than ever is in question. Likewise, many of the child care programs that remain open are expected to support learning for school-age children even though they are not compensated to do so. Another factor is that many families are delaying or opting out of kindergarten enrollment for their kindergarten age children, preferring home or child care options that they see as more developmentally appropriate.

photo of two children

Many child care providers are doing their best to support the care and education of children who are no longer going to school in person; yet, the majority of child care programs that provide school-age care are not equipped with the facilities or staffing to care for both older and younger children together for the full day. Most facilities were only designed to be used flexibly before and after school hours.

In response to the pandemic, much needed infusions of funding from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) and DCYF have been made available and will provide millions in funding to support staffing, cleaning supplies, and technology. It is unknown for how long school-age children will continue to learn remotely, and it is likely that this funding will be exhausted well before the pandemic ends. ECEAP, which supports young children near or below the poverty line, shifted to provide a mix of in-person and distance services for children and families. While ECEAP continues to provide high-quality family support, it is likely that the disruption to in-person instruction will have long lasting impacts for children. The current and ongoing health and economic crisis will push our fragile and under-resourced system to the edge if bold and lasting measures are not taken.

What the System Needs to Support Children and Caregivers

There is widely shared agreement amongst educators, families, and state leaders that what is needed to rebuild a better system is a significant and sustained investment in young children and families statewide.

This means several things. We need to increase the WCCC provider reimbursement rate to match the true cost of quality for the child care providers who accept it, and we need to expand access to the subsidy to adequately support more of the families that need it. For child care providers, the current subsidy rates are just not enough to meet the costs of providing high-quality care (including health insurance, benefits, and sick leave for employees). Accepting subsidies can make it difficult to run a child care business and retain an experienced staff. For this and other reasons, many child care providers do not accept the subsidy program at all.

For example, in Southwest Washington, the average monthly WCCC subsidy reimbursement rate for a family child care is $653 per child, well below the per child monthly tuition of $799 charged by the majority of family child cares in the region. Furthermore, when it comes to paying the actual costs of quality, this number is not even close—the highest quality child care programs in the area have an average monthly cost of almost $2,000 per child, more than three times higher than the current WCCC subsidy reimbursement rate. Child care owners are not only caring for and educating children, they are also running businesses with a responsibility to their employees and themselves. With WCCC subsidy reimbursement rates so far below the true costs of this business, we are currently disincentivizing child care owners from accepting families who use the subsidy, or expecting them to accept these families without the adequate resources to do so at a high level of quality.

For families, the subsidy program reaches those making up to 219% of the federal poverty line, which is less than $58,000 for a family of four. A family of four making just over this amount does not qualify for the program and can spend more than 50% of their income on child care (in a family with one preschooler and one infant), an impossible financial burden that either prevents families from joining the middle class, or causes them to forgo raises and promotions because they would lose access to the subsidy. Families that do participate in WCCC are also responsible for a co-pay that can be a significant burden, up to $563 per month (or 15% of income) for a family of four. This co-pay makes the program inaccessible for many families, who may instead opt for unlicensed care and off-market care, which usually costs much less but is not regulated.

To truly expand access to reliable, high quality care we need to do three things:

  • Increase the subsidy rate so that it fully matches the true costs of providing care.
  • Reduce the cost burden of co-pays for families so that no more than 7% of income goes to child care; and finally
  • Expand access to WCCC so that more families in the low-moderate income range can get affordable and reliable child care, allowing for their economic growth and stability.

We also need to encourage employer-provided or supported child care for middle- and upper- income families. This might include employers offering dependent care Flexible Savings Accounts (FSA), adopting family-friendly workplace policies, including flexible schedules to allow for pick-up/drop-off of children at school or care and back-up care provisions that provide families with credits at services like Care.com. For larger companies that have the capacity to do so, on-site child care is a widely sought-after benefit. Smaller organizations can adopt a mix of strategies and are often positioned to extend greater flexibility regarding work hours and the ability to work from home.

Other investments that would pay dividends:

  • Expand Washington state’s Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP) and the Federal Head Start and Early Head Start programs to reach all eligible low-income families, with full-day care for children in families where all parents are working.
  • Create pay parity for Early Care Educators (ECE) with K-3 educators and competency-based standards to retain and expand the diverse and highly skilled early childhood education workforce.
  • Expand home visiting, play and learn groups, and other evidence-based services that support family, friend, and neighbor caregivers and young children who are not participating in licensed child care.

Washington STEM’s Role

infographic about the child care crisisWherever children are, they need relationships, language, and environments that will nurture their development; and every caregiving adult needs support to do their best with children. For families that need or want child care, it is critical that they have access to safe, high-quality care and learning environments. In Washington state, approximately 40% of children entering Kindergarten have access to licensed child care that provides interactions and learning opportunities leading to ongoing school success. In addition to this, we know that math readiness is a strong predictor of future academic achievement, even stronger than reading literacy; and yet, only 68% of all children entering Kindergarten in Washington state are math-ready, and only 61% of children of color are entering math-ready. Ensuring that all of our state’s children have the support they need before they enter Kindergarten is an issue of social justice; the data show that when kids do not have adequate support, they can start behind—and they often stay behind. Closing opportunity gaps around access to education beyond high school, and future employment, starts with giving children and families what they need in the first five years of life.

Raising the Issue through Data

With urging from a broad coalition of regional and statewide partners in the early learning sector, Washington STEM (with co-leadership from Washington Communities for Children) is creating a suite of regional State of the Children reports and dashboards that monitor—over time—how the system is supporting children ages 0–8 to grow, learn, and thrive. These resources will:

  1. Have easily accessible data needed to quickly assess which early childhood interventions are working, how they are working, and for whom.
  2. Determine how to improve practices and systems to support young children from priority underserved populations.
  3. Provide critical information to regional early learning leaders and practitioners so that data can drive decision making, advocacy, and increased investment.

Washington STEM is also partnering with ten regional STEM networks, as well as with Washington Communities for Children and Child Care Aware of Washington, to sound the alarm bells and mobilize community action.

Advocacy and Education

Washington STEM engages in advocacy by participating in the Early Learning Action Alliance (ELAA) steering committee, where we contribute and sign-on to communications and initiatives that advance our advocacy priorities. Washington STEM is also part of the Fair State policy workgroup, working alongside legislators and other statewide early education and care-focused organizations to create strong legislation that equitably supports children and caregivers.

We are addressing key levers to make sure all children get all three early learning “ingredients” by advocating for:

  • Accessible, affordable, and high-quality early learning opportunities
  • Working conditions for early care and education providers that honor their expertise, increase retention, and expand the workforce
  • Aligned systems across early learning, K-12, health, and mental health to connect and coordinate supports for families

When we advocate for these changes, we create the foundational conditions within which children can thrive and do their best STEM thinking.

Your Support

Join Washington STEM in supporting those who are leading in this space. We invite you to devote time and resources to local, frontline early learning organizations and to support social justice organizations that focus on education and early learning. Changes at the systems level will improve access to critical early learning resources and skills for both programs and families, and, in turn, will help Washington’s students have choices and allow them to fully participate in our economy, including STEM. And lastly, we ask that you use your voice to advocate for equitable policy that supports building a system of care that serves all our children.

For Washington state, time is of the essence. Our communities, and all of our children, need and deserve the opportunity to launch their lifetime of learning in a way that will enable each to succeed, be self-determining, and to share in the prosperity of our economy. For that to happen, as we rebuild, we need to think holistically, invest early, and ensure that the solutions we develop are just.