Enrolling a child in a high-quality child care can easily cost $15,000-$20,000 a year, especially in the Seattle area. Most families can’t afford that, even if they qualify for federal or state subsidies.
Throughout Washington state, only about 30 percent of children attend programs that have earned a score of 3 or better on the state’s voluntary child-care rating system, said state Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina.
Yet a growing body of research suggests that quality matters when it comes to preparing children for kindergarten — and that low-income children may have the most to gain.
So how can Washington get higher-quality care for more of its youngest residents?
In a bill introduced Tuesday, a bipartisan group of legislators are proposing a mix of carrots and sticks. The prime sponsors are Hunter, who leads the House Appropriations Committee, and state Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, chair of the Senate’s education committee.
One carrot: A sliding-scale for the size of subsidies that early learning programs can receive. The higher a program’s rating on the state’s 1-to-5 rating system, the bigger the subsidy. The largest subsidy — for a score of 5 — wouldn’t reach the $15,000-a-year level, but Hunter said it would be 10-20 percent higher than it is now.
The subsidies are part of the Working Connections Child Care program, generally for working parents whose wages are no more than 200 percent of the federal poverty line. That program now serves roughly 50,000 children a year.
Another carrot for child care providers: The state would provide more stability by paying for a certain number of spots outright each year. The bill’s sponsors hope that will be an extra financial incentive for child care centers to accept families using subsidies, which sometimes are less than what the centers usually charge.
A possible boon for families: Once a family is deemed eligible for a state subsidy under the Working Connections program, the bill proposes that the family can keep that subsidy for a full year even if mom or dad loses a job or gets a raise.
“The kid needs to be in the program in order to be ready for kindergarten, regardless of whether mom is sick or not,” Hunter said.
And the stick? By July 2019, existing child care programs would have to earn a score of 3 or better on the state’s rating system to be part of Working Connections. The ratings are based on a number of criteria, including observations of the interactions between child care teachers and children.
Starting in July 2015, new programs would have 30 months to reach a score of 3 or better.
Early Childhood Education and Assistance programs — similar to federal Head Start programs — would have to reach level 4 by 2019.
“Paying for low-quality care isn’t worth doing,” Hunter said.
The proposals would cost money, but it’s not yet clear how much. Hunter estimated it would be $10 million a biennium or less, and added that the changes would save money in the long term by getting more students ready for kindergarten and reducing the need for support programs such as special education.
The first goal is to get 80 percent of children who receive state child care subsidies into quality programs by 2020.