Free pre-K classrooms for low-income kids sees unvailability gap grow as a service pinch point gets worse

SNOHOMISH COUNTY — Spokane mom Megan Pirie considers free preschool a blessing. It let her go to work while her children learned.
However, there is no room for hundreds of young children in the county to learn pivotal primer skills under Washington’s state-funded preschool network.
About 1,500 to 2,000 kids ages 3 and 4 in the county are missing out if they want it. They live in families that earn less than $48,000 a year if they have three in the house. If they have bigger households they're still eligibile if they earn more than that.
So, why? Those in the know say the reason there's a gap in the number of classrooms is because the state isn't covering the cost of doing business for the operators of ECEAP preschools.
These are not public school. Private entities run the programs and are reimbursed at set rates to do so through government funds.
These classrooms are through the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program, pronounced "E-cap," and they do more than teach. ECEAP also acts as a child care service and gives families parenting guidance when they need it.
The county had approximately 1,875 children enrolled in ECEAP and its federal equivalent, Head Start, this year.
The state's Fair Start for Kids Act in 2021 doubled the base income level to be eligible for ECEAP.
Funding did not follow along to adding enough classroom seats. The widened eligibility increased the classroom gap by about 500 to 1,000 children in Snohomish County compared to 2021. That year, about 940 children were missing out.
To keep providers, it has to pencil out for them. The number of classroom providers today haven't changed significantly from the 2021-22 school year.
Sustaining these has hurdles.
The county has spent around $3 million a year of its federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money to help keep ECEAP afloat during these two most recent school years.
The rescue plan consisted of a COVID-19-era downpour of federal money to sustain local governments. It is not a permanent solution.
It's why moms such as Pirie approached federal legislators earlier this year on a delegation trip hunting for $1 billion for Head Start.
It's why state legislators also have been lobbied for help for ECEAP.
How much is needed for ECEAP?
In Snohomish County, at a minimum, a little over $1.8 million is needed. It's enough to keep the program functioning at the current status quo but would be inadequate to keep up with costs. Really they'd need to cover a shortfall of $3.5 million, Snohomish County early learning manager Karen Matson* said.
Balancing the books decides whether providers want to play ball. It's there for the taking under state contracts, but the providers also have to balance staff wage increases and other needs under a preset amount of pay. Providers often include school districts themselves.
A situation like this played out in Everett Community College in 2021 when the college intended to close its Early Learning Center with its ECEAP program. The college painted a picture it was eating the cost where it ran on a cumulative financial loss of $70,000 from 2016 to 2021. County leaders stepped in and handed ARPA funding to the college to keep it open.
Without ARPA dollars in the future, providers would have to choose to take the cost themselves or consider closing, Matson explained.
In other words, at the status quo, "there will be a point where ECEAP will be financial unsustainable," Matson said.
Where's the money? State-level ECEAP funding comes straight from the state general fund, according to the state Office of Financial Management.
What an early childhood classroom for kindergarten readiness provides, though, "impacts children their whole adult life," Matson said.
Some have tried to move the needle.
State Rep. April Berg, of the 44th Legislative District, this year asked for a $4.8 million budget proviso to maintain existing slots for ECEAP classrooms. "We've got a child care infrastructure problem statewide," Berg said.
The Legislature gave some.
The state Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) will be getting millions of dollars to expand by 500 school day slots and upconvert 1,000 part-day slots –three hours of learning – into full-day slots of six hours.
In the county, the plan is to use the money to convert 50 part-day ECEAP slots to 33 full school day slots, and add 55 school day slots new to the system, DCYF spokesman Jason Wettstein said.
The lengthiest ECEAP classroom is a "working day" classroom, which mix learning with child care for a whole 10 hours.
Advocates say the system needs more of these.
Pirie, the Spokane mom, put it this way: If your job is 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., you can't get to your child until 6 p.m. Pirie explained a half-day presents a challenge to the working poor without others to take care of the kids.
"We're hearing 'nobody wants to work,' but people need to have child care," Pirie complained.
Teacher pay is part of the bottom line for providers, who get paid preset amounts. But here's the rub: classroom teachers are paid at preset rates by the state, and the pay has been competitive with average fast-food wages. (It was $35,317 a year to be a lead ECEAP teacher, which breaks out to $17 an hour. A public school kindergarten teacher makes about $20,000 more than that.)
There's a workplace crisis, says Joel Ryan, the head of the Washington State Association of Head Start and ECEAP.
Nobody works in early childhood for the money, said Maya Washington, a Tacoma resident who worked as a former ECEAP worker, "but it makes it extra difficult if you're not able to sustain your home" on that pay.
DCYF asked for a 40% pay rate increase from the statethis year to increase the preset rates paid to teachers. It got shades of that.
Ryan was also worried how congressional efforts to address America's debt ceiling will hit these programs.
Legislators are trying to figure what to save and what to cut if need be. The U.S. House version of the debt ceiling bill earlier this month cuts federal Head Start by 20 percent. Localized, statewide it would reduce enrollment in Head Start by 2,800 children, according to Ryan's organization.

* - Correction: In the print version of this story, Karen Matson's first reference was accidentally written as Watson versus Matson. Later references were correct as Matson. The Tribune regrets the error.