Monday, February 6, 2023
Feb. 6, 2023

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ESD 112 official urges lawmakers to support early learning in Southwest Washington

By , Columbian staff writer

Effective child care and early-learning opportunities are often described as linchpins for economic progress; they allow parents to feel comfortable going to work, knowing their children are in a safe, welcoming environment while they’re away.

However, with pandemic-era federal funding drying up and inadequate worker compensation leading staff to leave the industry at never-before-seen rates, providers across Washington are looking to legislators to help right what they’ve described as a sinking ship.

Jodi Wall, the director of early learning for Educational Service District 112 — which serves school districts in Clark County and across Southwest Washington — testified Thursday before the Washington House Early Learning Committee, sharing data that further highlights the barriers she and others in early learning are facing.

“When kids are able to go through our programs, the impact is enormous,” said Wall, who’s worked in early learning at ESD 112 for more than 20 years. “But we don’t have all our classrooms open because we don’t have enough staff. There are children in our community who do not have access to these critical services.”

Wall testified alongside Mamie Barboza, the executive director at EPIC, an early learning education provider in Yakima County and north-central Washington. Each shared the latest data on staff turnover, anxiety among children and funding concerns.

One set of metrics ESD 112 uses to assess the needs of young children entering its program are a series of questions to parents about their child’s ability to solve social problems, manage feelings, form relationships with others and more. Comparing data from 2022 with that from 2019, children are exhibiting lower rates of each of the above abilities across the board.

“Attachments are so, so critical for young children, when they don’t have a consistent caregiver, that can be so hard on those relationships and attachments that are critical for developing strong social emotional skills,” Wall said.

Both Wall and Barboza testified they were seeing increases in autism and cognitive and speech delays, as well as behaviors, such as social anxiety, aggression and an inability to regulate emotions.

As children struggle, staff do, too

ESD 112’s combination of early-learning programs serve an estimated 1,200 students in Southwest Washington.

Wall reported Thursday that as much as 38.5 percent of the capacity for assistant teachers in its Early Childhood Education and Assistance Programs remained vacant, in addition to serious vacancies for lead teachers and family support specialists. Another issue, Wall said, is a lack of bilingual support specialists who can provide specialized support to families that don’t speak English.

The reason for such staff turnover? Early-learning care and child care continue to be among the most underpaid positions in the country, Wall and Barboza said. As staff dwindles, more pressure is put on each educator — a stress that is inevitably felt by the children.

“We need to compensate these educators at a commensurate rate,” Wall said. “(Former staff members) are going a variety of places, including to K-12. But, for example, we also lost a really high quality (Early Childhood Education and Assistance Programs) teacher to Pizza Hut, because the pay there was the same but the work just less stressful and taxing.”

In the coming months, Wall and other leaders in Clark County and across the state are planning to continue meeting with legislators and funding providers, with the hope of seeking grant funds that can provide long-term stabilization.

Pandemic-era reliance on federal stimulus funding allowed ESD 112 and other agencies the ability to stay afloat, but Wall fears their goal of getting back on track will remain at greater risk without adequate funding to retain staff and fill classrooms.

“We lost 25 percent of our child care capacity in Southwest Washington during the pandemic, and a lot of that hasn’t come back,” Wall said. “We didn’t have enough capacity before the pandemic, and now we really don’t.”