Less than half of Washington’s 3- and 4-year-olds attend preschool of any kind.
Just 8 percent of them have access to publicly funded, high-quality prekindergarten.
Those are some of the findings from the KIDS COUNT Data Book, published annually by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and released Monday. The report ranks Washington 16th overall among the 50 states for child well-being.
About 14 percent of children here live in poverty, about the same percentage as in 1990 and an improvement over 2010, during the aftermath of the recession, when the number was 18 percent. But the number of children growing up in poverty has increased as the state’s population has grown. And child poverty in Washington is disproportionately experienced by children of color.
One of the reasons for so many kids in poverty is policy changes and budget cuts the state made to WorkFirst/Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) during the recession, said Julie Watts, deputy director of the Washington State Budget and Policy Center, a nonpartisan research and policy organization. The programs, which assist families with young children, are now serving a smaller portion of children in poverty than at any time in their history, she said.
Families that have been dropped from the program because of its time-limit policy are disproportionately black and American Indian. Many of the families cut from the program are homeless, or have at least one family member with a severe mental health problem, she said.
“We know the outcomes for families are really, really bad when they get kicked off this program,” Watts said. “What’s important to realize is that these are families with young children.” Watts said she and others testified before the Legislature this year to try to boost funding for the program, but were unable to get the cuts restored.
Washington is one of only 15 states in the nation where the growth in the child population has outpaced the national average. Since 1990, the year the foundation published its first report, the number of children living in this state has grown by 344,000, according to foundation researchers.
The population of children in Washington is also growing more diverse, with the biggest increase coming in the population of Latino/Latina children, which grew threefold by 2017, to 21 percent. Nationwide, the number of Latino children doubled.
According to the report, about 57 percent of Washington 3- and 4-year-olds, or 107,000 children, do not attend preschool; the national average is 52 percent. Research shows that children who attend a high-quality prekindergarten program are less likely to repeat a grade, drop out or get referred for special-education services.
Seattle, for one, is addressing the problem. Last fall, Seattle voters approved the Families, Education, Preschool and Promise Program levy, which will raise $600 million in property taxes over the next seven years. More than half the money will fund the expansion of the Seattle Preschool Program. A 2014 analysis commissioned by the city found that around a third of Seattle’s preschool-age population, or 12,000 3- and 4-year-olds, were not enrolled in preschool.
But “so long as we’re not serving the growing population of children living in poverty throughout the state, we’re not going to see a change in those numbers,” Watts said of the low percentage of children in preschool.
The state is currently serving only about half the low-income kids who are eligible for preschool through federally-funded Head Start and state-funded Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP), she said. Studies show the programs are very successful at improving kindergarten readiness scores, as well as reducing racial disparities among children when they start school. The Early Childhood Assistance Program uses individualized learning plans to tailor a child’s learning to his or her strengths and weaknesses, and works with the family to support intellectual, emotional and social development. It also plays a role in reducing a family’s expenses, since child care costs can eat up more than a quarter of a family’s monthly income, according to the budget and policy office.
The report also shows that more Washington families are spending a larger chunk of their income for housing. Today, about 31 percent of Washington children live in households that must spend about a third of their income to paying for housing. In 1990, that number was 26 percent.
“We can and must do better,” said Paola Maranan, executive director of the Seattle nonprofit Children’s Alliance, in a statement. “Children are one quarter of our state’s population but 100 percent of our future. What we do for them today — or fail to do — has long-term implications,” said Maranan, who heads the statewide, nonpartisan child advocacy organization.
One bright spot is in measures of child health, where Washington ranks 11th. The share of children who have no health-insurance coverage decreased by more than half since 2010. Lawmakers forged the way for this change by bundling Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program into one, called Apple Health for Kids, the foundation said.