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News / Clark County News

Washington 33rd in U.S. on preschool access, reinforcing assertions of Clark County education leaders

Lawmakers’ strides to assist have not been enough to meet demand

By Chrissy Booker, Columbian staff writer
Published: May 2, 2024, 6:07am

A recent national study found Washington falls behind in preschool access compared with other states, reinforcing the assertion from local education leaders that the demand for early-learning programs has far outpaced funding.

The National Institute for Early Education Research report found in the 2022-2023 school year, Washington’s two state-funded preschool programs — Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program and transitional kindergarten — served a combined 16 percent of 4-year-olds and 8 percent of 3-year-olds. Washington ranked 33rd in the nation for preschool enrollment for 4-year-olds and 17th for 3-year-olds.

Educational Opportunities for Children and Families, which oversees Head Start and the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program in Southwest Washington, serves about 1,100 children across Clark, Cowlitz and Pacific counties. CEO Rekah Strong said her organization lacks funding to serve an additional 4,000 eligible students in the area.

“We were the linchpin that got us through the pandemic, but we have very heavy challenges coming out of the backside of the pandemic,” Strong said. “Early learning and the child care community is heavily supported on the backs of women, particularly women of color, but compared to any similar program that is a basic infrastructure of government, we are way underfunded.”

Although Washington lawmakers have made strides toward expanding access to early education through recent legislation, it’s still not enough to meet the demand, said Joel Ryan, executive director of the Washington State Association of Head Start and the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program.

“We have addressed at the state level putting more dollars into early learning, but it’s nowhere near enough and at the federal level. We still have a long way to go,” Ryan said. “Even though we’re a very underfunded program and there are a lot of challenges and things going on, the program is really well regarded. While we could do a lot better with access, we’re making progress toward serving more kids.”

‘Not enough dollars’

Head Start and the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program help families prepare their children ahead of kindergarten. Transitional kindergarten, a newer early-education program, is intended for 5-year-olds who have missed the cutoff for kindergarten or who are turning 5 before the following school year.

According to the study, Washington’s Department of Children, Youth and Families enrolled 15,808 children in the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program during the 2022-2023 school year, up 801 children from the prior year. The state spent $11,503 per child enrolled that year, down $40 from 2021-2022.

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The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction enrolled 5,244 children in transitional kindergarten during the 2022-2023 school year, an increase of 2,117 children from the previous year. State spending per child was $13,259, up $88 from 2021-2022.

Ryan said the combination of Head Start’s difficulty attracting staff, paired with the number of children who needed targeted services, decreased accessibility throughout the pandemic.

While slots have increased since then, the demand for early-education programs continues to skyrocket, especially because isolation from the pandemic stunted some children’s development, and more families are seeking those services, Ryan said.

“The ECEAP program was meant to address the challenges that the pandemic has laid in front of us: deepening poverty, public health issues, family engagement, helping people get back to work in terms of jobs and working with the whole family,” Ryan said. “You need really well-trained people. You need additional resources to support those kids and their families as a whole. Both the Head Start and ECEAP programs just simply do not have enough dollars to do those things at the moment.”

Supporting families

For decades, Head Start and the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program have provided early-learning education to children. But beyond that, the two programs offer wrap-around services to support the family unit, including housing resources, meals and transportation, Strong said.

Stevonne Fuller, a Vancouver mom of two, is among those families. Her 5-year-old son, Lucious, has speech difficulties and struggled to socialize during the pandemic.

“Once he turned 3, he faced a lot of difficulty socializing because people didn’t understand him. They would often leave him,” Fuller said. “It was painful for me as a parent, because I recognize how hard it must be to face that level of rejection at such an early age.”

Fuller enrolled her son in the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program in January 2022. There, he received support through an individualized education program, a special education plan for students who may be struggling in school.

Once a week, a speech therapist visits her son’s classroom and helps him with enunciation. Luscious is now set to start kindergarten in the fall, and his speech has significantly improved, Fuller said.

“It takes a village. The support has been invaluable,” she said. “He’s really doing a great job now, and his growth has been amazing. I wholeheartedly believe we need more support for ECEAP in the community. I really do hope we get more funding because it really closes the learning gap.”

In order to recruit more staff, Educational Opportunities for Children and Families partners with Clark College to train parents who might be successful staffers and help pay for their education in child and family studies.

But there is still work that needs to be done, including ensuring leaders in early education receive livable wages and increasing access to programs by widening the application criteria for families, Strong said.

“We’re going into families, we’re breaking generational trauma and helping them chart an entirely different path,” Strong said.

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.