Editor’s note: Capitol Dispatch appears every Sunday during the legislative session.
Two efforts to address the statewide early child care and education crunch are receiving bipartisan support.
On near-unanimous votes, both houses of the Legislature passed a bill to expand access to state-supported early childhood education and assistance programs.
The legislation, Senate Bill 5437, would increase the threshold for eligible families with children ages 3 to 5 from 110 percent of the federal poverty level up to 200 percent, or about $51,500 for a family of four. This is intended to increase enrollment, particularly in rural areas or tribal communities, according to the bill.
However, no more than a fourth of enrolled children would be from families with incomes at or above 130 percent of the federal poverty level.
The Department of Children, Youth and Families would also be required to develop 10 pilot locations for assistance programs for children 3 years old and younger. The programs would be phased in and could be funded with federal, state or private sources.
The Senate passed the legislation 47 to 1 on March 6, with 19th District Sen. Dean Takko, D-Longview, and 20th District Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, both voting in support.
The bill then passed out of the House on Thursday 89 to 8, with the support of 19th District Reps. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, and Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, and 20th District Reps. Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis, and Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama.
House Representatives from the 19th and 20th districts all also voted for another proposed law, House Bill 1344, intended to make child care more accessible and affordable.
Proponents of the legislation say child care can cost more than college tuition and about 63 percent of families don’t have access to high-quality providers. During public testimony in the House, many people spoke in support of the legislation while no one spoke against it.
In Cowlitz County, the number of licensed childcare centers dropped from 67 to 47 between 2013 and 2017, according to Child Care Aware, a nationwide referral service.
The Washington Child Care Access Now Act would require an assessment of the child care industry and establish a task force to draft recommendations for providing quality care, including teacher-student ratios, new considerations for subsidies and pay scale changes to put providers on par with K-12 teachers by 2025.
The legislation also includes a phased plan to limit child costs to no more than 7 percent of family income by 2025. The plan would also increase eligibility for the Working Connections Child Care program to 300 percent of the federal poverty level or 85 percent of the state median income, and eliminate the fiscal cap on enrollment.
The House passed the bill 72 to 24 on March 5.
The Senate Committee on Early Learning and K-12 Education then passed the legislation on March 22 and referred it to the Ways and Means Committee, which passed it on April 9. The bill is currently in the Rules Committee.