WA preschool quality is improving, but access is limited

The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) reports that Washington state is faltering  in the effort to deliver high-quality preschool education to children in need.

Their report, The State of Preschool 2011, shows little improvement in access to preschool over the past decade. With just 8% of 4-year-olds enrolled in pre-k, Washington ranks 31st out of 39 states in access to state-funded preschool in 2010-11. The AP reports that Washington’s preschool, Head Start and special education programs serve only 20% of 3- and 4-year-olds in Washington – just half the number eligible.


On the bright(er) side, NIEER did find improvements in program quality. Washington’s pre-k programs now meet 9 out of 10 benchmarks for quality – up from just 6 a decade ago. And in another indicator of improving state priorities, Washington now ranks 7th in funding per child, despite revenue shortfalls brought on by the recession and weak recovery.

Greater state funding makes a comprehensive approach possible – one that includes home visits, parental education and support, and helping parents access drug and alcohol and domestic violence support services when they are needed. “Taking a whole family approach is much more effective in supporting children’s academic and life success over the long-term, as opposed to simply focusing on classroom activities,” said Gary Burris, EOI Senior Policy Associate.

wa state pre-k spendingSteve Barnett, NIEER director, agrees Washington is making some progress. “Washington’s program remains well-funded, dropping real per-child funding only slightly in 2010-2011, and the quality is there. With recent legislation designed to improve delivery of high-quality care and education, and as one of the states to receive an Early Learning Challenge grant in 2011, there is hope of improving early learning opportunities for preschoolers in Washington.”

While adequate funding and program quality are clearly state priorities, elected leaders also know increasing  access to pre-k is critical – especially for children living in poverty – and are working on a solution.

In 2010, Representative Roger Goodman sponsored a bill to create a high quality pre-k system by building on the current system. It would be accessible at no cost for all children from families with income less than 110% of poverty, and open to all families on a sliding scale fee basis. While full implementation was planned for 2018, recent revenue shortfalls have led legislators to move that date back to 2023.

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