Free pre-K classrooms for low-income kids short on supply
SNOHOMISH COUNTY — There’s no room for hundreds of low-income young children who could gain pivotal primer skills through preschool.
But the barrier is not an inability to pay for preschool. State-based early learning programs are free. The barrier is the availability of classrooms.
The preschools are run under the state’s Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP) and its federal equivalent, Head Start. The programs serve kids in the foundational ages of 3 to 5 in families living at or below 110 percent the poverty line.
There are some 900 fewer classroom seats in Snohomish County than how many children are eligible.
This is the ECEAP gap.
In Snohomish County, an estimated 918 children eligible for free preschool weren’t in it, from compiling data from the state Department of Children Youth and Families (DCYF). The statewide gap was 20,928 children last year. There are gaps nationally.
The program matters for teaching children during a key development stage for their brains and how they approach challenges.
“There’s definitely an unmet need,” said Karen Matson, who manages Early Learning within Snohomish County’s Human Services Department. “Every year, Snohomish County looks at the possibilities to expand slots.”
Space is just one barrier to adding classrooms.
ECEAP classrooms are restricted to having no more than 20 kids, and must meet a series of state childcare licensing standards.
Having a program pencil out for a participating childcare center is another barrier, as the state controls reimbursement for each child in ECEAP services. The amount of reimbursement needs to be enough to cover the staff and direct services to make providing an ECEAP program worthwhile enough from a business sense. Providers receive subcontracts to run classrooms in their facilities.
ECEAP not only prepares children, it also gives comprehensive mentoring to young families. Strengthening families is part of the program’s importance, said Beth Mizell, the ECEAP Director for Snohomish County Human Services.
There are thousands more Washington families who earn just above ECEAP’s income limit whose pre-kindergarten children miss out, too, said Rekah Strong, the executive director of Educational Opportunities for Children and Families, during a late February state legislative rally for ECEAP funding.
There are local imbalances: Within the boundaries of the small Darrington School District, for example, there are 30 slots but last year only four children were enrolled.
Meanwhile, within the Edmonds area, only 28 percent of the eligible kids were in classrooms, equating to 428 kids who couldn’t attend if their families wanted to enroll them.
Advocates hope a bill named the Fair Start for Kids Act will do the legwork to expand ECEAP.
The Fair Start act has many provisions, but one would use Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed capital gains tax to create dedicated funding for expanding ECEAP. It also raises the family income limit for eligibility.
“We think that’s a great strategy,” Joel Ryan, who leads the Washington State Association of Head Start and ECEAP, said during the
legislative rally Feb. 25 that had more than 500 attendees on the Zoom call.
In Monroe, Jeff Rasmussen is hoping to expand ECEAP by 40 more classrooms at the Boys & Girls Club.
State Rep. Carolyn Eslick, R-Sultan, has asked for a $250,000 earmark in the capital budget to make it happen.
Monroe’s gap was 61 classroom slots last year for the 118 children eligible, and that has only increased as a set of classrooms inside Fryelands Elementary were discontinued this year.
“We’re looking for any space we can,” Rasmussen said. “We’re trying to fill a need — it’s not just the Boys & Girls Club but for the city of Monroe.”
ECEAP classrooms are contracted through the county, which gets its money administered by DCYF, the state agency. Head Start classrooms operate using federal dollars.
While Head Start is getting fresh cash in President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief package, it won’t necessarily move the needle, an advocacy expert said.
“Unfortunately, these funds are not going to expand Head Start or Early Head Start per se, but will allow programs to keep up with the increased costs they have experienced due to COVID-19,” Tommy Sheridan, the Deputy Director of the nonprofit National Head Start Association, told the Tribune.
The advocacy association estimates the Biden package “will provide about $18,293,840 to grantees in the state of Washington (roughly $1,160 per slot),” Sheridan said.
The state agency determines where to put money toward ECEAP expansion efforts based on data analysis. The priorities appear to be influenced by the sheer quantity of unserved children within an area.
For example: About half of the 124 kids eligible in the Snohomish School District are unserved, but the district itself ranks in the fourth tier on the expansion priority list. The Clover Park School District, a large district in Pierce County, has 718 unserved kids and ranks in the No. 1 tier; as does Spokane Public Schools, where state data says 1,047 eligible kids may be missing out.
The county has little leeway in being able to budge the state’s priority lists, county ECEAP officials said.
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