- Associated Press - Monday, May 11, 2015

SEATTLE (AP) - The number of children enrolled in Washington state programs that provide preschool for low-income kids remains too low, a new report released Monday says.

The state ranks 33rd in the nation for access to state preschool for 4-year-olds, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research, which conducts an annual review of preschool programs.

Washington state has made an effort to improve the quality of preschool for low-income kids, and the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program saw an increase in 2014 of 350 students to just over 10,000 children across the state.

A long-range plan calls for the number of participants to double by the 2018-19 school year, a move that would more than double the budget of the $60 million state program.

Lawmakers have proposed an immediate increase in state spending for preschool, which would increase the number of kids in the program by 1,350 children.

The Senate and House budget proposals are currently more than $100 million apart on money for early education.

Rep. Ruth Kagi, D-Lake Forest Park, said the House budget sets aside more money for the early education program for low-income kids, spends more on quality preschool training and support for all kids, and invests millions more to keep children in their state-run preschool even if their parents’ job situation changes.

“There’s a big difference between the Senate and the House on many items. One of the bigger ones is early learning,” Kagi said.

She expressed optimism that lawmakers will reach a compromise even though they are so far apart on the dollars at this time. She noted that preschool proposals in the Legislature have garnered much bipartisan support.

About 42 percent of Washington children with a family income below 110 percent of the federal poverty level - $25,905 for a family of four - are currently served by either the state-run early childhood education program or the federally supported Head Start program.

The Washington Department of Early Learning estimates more than 28,000 children are eligible for these programs but are not enrolled.

Lawmakers have also proposed a plan to keep improving the quality of private preschools by mandating participation in the state’s quality rating and improvement system for licensed child care facilities. The Senate and House budgets differ on how much money to put toward training and support to help private daycares to improve their quality ratings.

The national report commends Seattle for stepping up on its own to expand early learning opportunities by starting a city-run program to offer quality preschool to all children.

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