ESD 112 official urges lawmakers to support early learning in southwest Washington

Effective childcare and early childhood education opportunities are often described as the linchpin of economic progress; They make parents feel comfortable going to work, knowing their children are in a safe and welcoming environment while they are away.

With pandemic-era federal funds drying up and inadequate worker compensation causing employees to leave the industry at unprecedented rates, providers across Washington are expecting lawmakers to help correct what they’ve called a sinking ship.

Jodi Wall, the director of early learning for Educational Service District 112 — which serves school districts in Clark County and southwest Washington — testified before the Washington House Early Learning Committee on Thursday, sharing data showing the barriers she and others face have in early learning, further emphasize vs.

“When children are able to go through our programs, the impact is tremendous,” said Wall, who has worked in early childhood education at ESD 112 for more than 20 years. “But we haven’t opened all our classrooms because we don’t have enough staff. There are children in our community who do not have access to these important services.”

Wall testified with Mamie Barboza, executive director of EPIC, an early childhood education provider in Yakima County and north-central Washington. Each shared the latest data on staff turnover, child anxiety and funding concerns.

A set of metrics ESD 112 uses to assess the needs of young children participating in its program are a set of questions asked of parents about their child’s ability to solve social problems, manage emotions, form relationships with others and much more. Comparing 2022 data to 2019 data, children consistently have lower rates for each of the above skills.

“Bondings are so, so crucial for young children, when they don’t have a consistent caregiver it can be so hard on those relationships and attachments, which are critical to developing strong social and emotional skills,” Wall said.

Both Wall and Barboza said they saw increases in autism and cognitive and language delays, as well as behaviors such as social anxiety, aggression, and an inability to regulate emotions.

If children have problems, so do the employees

ESD 112’s combination of early learning programs serves an estimated 1,200 students in southwest Washington.

Wall reported Thursday that up to 38.5 percent of teaching assistant capacity in its early childhood education and support programs remained vacant, in addition to serious job openings for senior teachers and family support specialists. Another problem, Wall says, is the lack of bilingual support specialists who can provide specialized support to families who don’t speak English.

The reason for this staff turnover? Early education and childcare remain among the most underpaid positions in the country, Wall and Barboza said. As staff dwindles, each educator comes under more pressure—a stress that is inevitably felt by the children.

“We need to reward these educators appropriately,” Wall said. “(Former employees) go to various places including K-12. But, for example, we also lost a really top-notch teacher (Early Childhood Education and Services) to Pizza Hut because they paid the same but the work was just less stressful and tiring.”

In the coming months, Wall and other leaders in Clark County and across the state plan to continue meeting with lawmakers and funders in hopes of securing grants that can provide long-term stability.

The pandemic-era reliance on government stimulus funds has allowed ESD 112 and other agencies to stay afloat, but Wall fears their goal of getting back on track without adequate funding to retain staff and fill classrooms is at a greater disadvantage will be at risk.

“We lost 25 percent of our childcare capacity in southwest Washington during the pandemic, and much of that hasn’t come back,” Wall said. “We didn’t have enough capacity before the pandemic, and we really don’t now.”

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