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Child-care centers: Can they do better by low-income families?

State Rep. Ross Hunter chairs the House Ways and Means Committee. Credit: Washington State Legislature

Legislators hope to encourage child-care centers to improve their work with low-income pre-school children.

Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, is introducing a bill to map out how to improve pre-school education by linking it to state subsidies. The bill builds on preliminary work done by Rep. Ruth Kagi, D-Seattle.

The state's Working Connections program provides roughly $300 million this biennium to subsidize child-care centers that accept low-income kids from a few months to 12 years old. In this case, low-income means a family earning 200 percent or less of the federal poverty level — a sliding figure that depends on the number of people in a family. The program is designed to support roughly 33,000 households. But for various reasons, it currently handles only 27,000 to 28,000 families.

Child-care homes and centers are rated on a scale of Level 1 (state licensed with no extras) to Level 5 (licensed with a large number of quality educational activities). The bill would provide bigger subsidies to the child-care centers and homes as they increase from Level 1 to Level 3 or higher.

The bill would also require all newly licensed centers to improve themselves to a Level 3 within 30 months. Existing child-care providers would have five years to reach Level 3.

Studies show that Hispanic and African-American students have poorer high-school graduation rates than white and Asian students. Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island and chairman of the Senate's Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee, said pre-school learning is a huge factor in success in school. The bill has bipartisan support in the Senate and House.

The financial calculations have not been done yet on how much this bill could cost, although Hunter speculated it would be less than $10 million. A source for the extra money has not been nailed down yet, he said.

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