The Forgotten Middle: Why 60% of Children in Washington Do NOT Attend Preschool

By Andrew A. Jay

I will admit I am a bit of a data nerd. It’s one of the reasons why Tiny Trees has Evidence Based Practice as a core value and why with almost a year left until opening day we already have an evaluation plan for how we will measure everything from program quality to risk management. That is why I was particularly sad to read the 2015 Kids Count Data Book published this summer by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Based upon a mountain of public and private research Kids Count provides clear data on the quality of life and future prospects for our children in all 50 of our states (sorry US Territories, no data for you). Overall Washington ranked in the middle – we provide our children with an average education and average prospects of a healthy and happy life. Except for one area:

60% of children in Washington do not attend preschool (pg. 43).

Here’s how we stack up to some of our peers:

Connecticut – 37%
New Jersey – 39%
….
Mississippi – 52%
Missouri – 56%
Alabama – 59%
Washington – 60%
West Virginia – 64%

Preschool is one of the best investments you can make in a child – it is a short term investment that pays a life-long dividend. A fact that was expressed last year by an unlikely source – Janet Yellen, Chair of the Federal Reserve, who during this *long* speech on income inequality argued that early childhood education not only prepares a child to succeed academically but saves the government money in the long run in public assistance and incarceration costs:

“Research shows that children from lower-income households who get good-quality pre-Kindergarten education are more likely to graduate from high school and attend college as well as hold a job and have higher earnings, and they are less likely to be incarcerated or receive public assistance.”
Janet Yellen, Chair of the Federal Reserve

Surprisingly, In Washington the 60% of children who are not going to preschool are not our poorest children, they are the children in the middle, the children of families who make too much to qualify for state subsidized preschool but not enough to afford preschool on the open market (a family of 4 must make <$29,000 to qualify for ECEAP – a state preschool program that now, with the passage of the 2015 Early Start Act has funding for nearly every child that qualifies). They are what I call the forgotten middle – working class families that live pay check to pay check and cannot afford the additional cost of preschool (what one friend calls his “Montessori mortgage”). Let us be clear, working class is the new class in the middle and they make up the majority of families in our state.

For families in the city of Seattle this is changing. Most now qualify for some level of subsidy under the new Seattle Preschool Program and any that makes <$75,000 for a family of 4 will receive full day preschool for free. That’s $10,000 of preschool that a family would otherwise be unable to afford. When fully implemented in 2018 this pilot program will help 2,000 children a year before going back to the ballot box for renewal. But that’s only in Seattle.

For the rest of Washington we need to super-boost how we invest in our children. Here are a few ideas:

Increase the income cap for state sponsored preschool to $50,000 a year for a family of 4 (200% of federal poverty level). The current level of $29,000 is so low most struggling families make too much to qualify. Especially in Puget Sound where the cost of living is high. In fact, if a single mom makes the new minimum wage of $15/hr she will make too much to qualify for ECEAP, which is a catch 22 – once she has the free childcare she needs to work she then loses it because her minimum wage job pays too much.

Invest in infrastructure – High quality preschools like the Community Day School Association have shown that running preschools out of surplus government buildings is an excellent way to keep costs low. The problem is preschools are facing a severe facility shortage. There are not enough buildings for all the preschools we need resulting in expensive schools on the private market (and long waiting lists) and a lack of preschools in the lowest income neighborhoods where they are needed most (non-profits that wish to invest there sadly do not have the access to capital to do so). One solution is adding additional classrooms in local elementary schools as part of the court mandated increase in education spending in WA. Another is providing loans at low interest rates to non-profits and preschool providers to build new schools.

Turn public space into education space – Outdoor preschools like Tiny Trees are based on the idea that public parks can become public classrooms. Here in Washington we are blessed with a wealth of beautiful green space, let’s put it to use as green education space where children receive a high quality education and a joyful childhood in the natural world. The best part is by not having a building you keep costs low for families and avoid the millions of dollars in infrastructure needed to build a new school.

Here at Tiny Trees our goal is to help every family afford preschool. Be you wealthy, poor or in the middle we are working to create a welcoming, affordable and emotionally and physically safe space for your child. To do so we are applying to be a provider for subsidized preschool from the City of Seattle and the State of Washington and are exploring financial tools like a sliding scale, payment plans and tax free childcare saving accounts for families that make too much to qualify but still find the cost of preschool a stretch.  Hopefully, in a few years, we can shift the data and do our part to help create a happier and healthier Washington – one pair of muddy rubber boots at a time.

Andrew Jay is the CEO of Tiny Trees Preschool. Send comments and questions to: Andrew@tinytrees.org

1Comment
  • Yarrow
    Posted at 11:56h, 06 September

    I don’t really have anything to add, but I am excited about Tiny Trees’ goals, and look forward to it, even if our daughter doesn’t get a spot. My husband and I are a family who can afford preschool for a kid, but it was a shock to us how expensive preschool is. Not that it isn’t a worthwhile thing to spend our money on, but it IS like a second mortgage. The other thing I found to be immensely frustrating is that many of the schools we looked at don’t seem to have the needs of working families in mind. If morning drop off is at 8:30 and pick up is no later than 5pm, there’s just no time for a commute and a full day of work. I know there are licensing requirements about no child staying in care more than 10 hours a day, but many preschools seem to have cut it back farther than that. I honestly don’t know how single, working parents manage the logistic complications of parenting.