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Section IV
Understanding Washington's Programs & Models

Washington state currently has a mixed-delivery system of child care and early learning that offers families access to care that meets their logistical needs and is reflective of their values and culture. Parent choice is one of the underlying principles of Washington state’s early learning system of care. A diversity of providers, including private non-profit agencies, private for-profit businesses, public entities including schools and community colleges, private home providers and families, friends and neighbors, all make up the rich network of options available to parents and caregivers seeking care for their children.

Below is a quick glance at the scope of early learning in Washington state (Department of Children, Youth, and Families):

DCYF Scope

Source: Department of Children, Youth, and Families

This section includes an overview of the variety of learning opportunities available during the earliest years of a child’s life in Washington – including childcare, preschool, family support services, and more – all based on the science of early childhood development. Click the following links to jump ahead to a specific category:

  • Home Visiting Programs: also referred to as voluntary parent support, these are voluntary, family-focused comprehensive support services offered prenatally through the youngest years of a child's life to support early learning opportunities in the home, virtually or in a community setting. In addition, the benefits of voluntary home visiting support services include maternal and infant health, child development, positive parent-child relationships and a connection to local community supports and services, to name a few. 
    Click here to learn more about Home Visiting Programs.


  • Early Support for Infants and Toddlers (ESIT): this program provides screening for developmental delays, and early intervention services for children birth to 3 with developmental delays or disabilities.
    Click here to learn more about ESIT.


  • Play and Learn Groups: offered in a variety of community settings, including virtual and bilingual, these groups support parents and other caregivers with the opportunity to develop early learning through play while building relationships with other children. The program also offers resources to parents and caregivers to establish teachable moments with their child at home and through everyday activities.
    To locate a Play and Learn group in your district, visit

  • Crisis Respite Care: this free service provided by the state offers temporary, immediate relief for parents or caregivers experiencing difficult circumstances who do not have access to safe care for their child.
    Click here to learn more about Crisis Respite Care.

The Bipartisan Policy Center reports, “Mixed delivery systems can strengthen both parental choice and the health of a community’s early care and education market…. Alongside federal investments in Pre-K, Head Start, and child care, consideration for a seamless implementation of diverse early care and education programs is critical to ensure working parents, young children, and local early care and education programs are best supported.”
  • Licensed or Certified Center-Based Child Care: this refers to care provided outside the home, typically located in a large structure or facility with multiple classrooms and with more employees than home-based centers.

  • Licensed or Certified Family Child Care (FCC): also known as In-Home or Home-Based Child Care, this model provides care for children in a private residential building such as a home or apartment rather than in a center. These providers care for a smaller number of children than centers, and often offer more flexible hours. Home based care is frequently one of the only options available to families living in rural communities that do not have enough children to sustain center-based care.

  • Family, Friend, and Neighbor Care (FFN): Unlicensed care is typically referred to as Family, Friend, and Neighbor Care, or FFN providers. FFN providers may include grandparents, aunts and uncles, older siblings, friends, neighbors, and other community members who support families by providing child care. Both in Washington and nationwide, FFN care is the most common type of child care for infants, toddlers, and school-age children before and after school – representing over half of all non-parental child care in our state. FFN care is also often the most affordable for families. FFN providers are typically exempt from licensing and not regulated by the state. For families who are income eligible, FFN caregivers can receive payments from the state for the care they provide.
    Click here to learn more about Family, Friend and Neighbor Care.

  • Tribal Programs*: these programs honor the rich cultural heritage of Native children, families, and communities. They may include Tribal Head Start, Tribal ECEAP, Tribal Home Visiting, and more – and serve as an important example of a culturally responsive program and learning opportunity. Many programs aim to serve enrolled members of a tribe, Native children or Native descendants of an enrolled member of a federally recognized tribe. They strive to support sovereign nations in implementing high-quality early learning approaches that are reflective of each Nation’s culture and values – such as the incorporation of Native words, phrases, songs, dances, child regalia, and traditional celebrations such as an annual Salmon bake - to name just a few. Increased funding and support for tribal early learning programs were created to help support Native children and families heal from historical trauma and provide culturally relevant and responsive resources and opportunities necessary to thrive.
    Click the following links for more information:

NOTE: Tribal Home Visiting is supported through the Tribal Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting program.

  • Before and After School Programs: offered in a variety of locations, including at schools and child care centers and homes, these programs provide services for children up to age 12 to accommodate child care needs outside of the hours schools operate.

  • Educational Service District (ESD)*: these agencies are regional liaisons between the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), State Board of Education, and the State Legislature that serve over one million students statewide across 295 school districts. Each of Washington’s nine ESDs form a network to provide a variety of early learning and care options that deliver essential services to meet the needs of children and families in local communities. Click here to learn more about ESDs. 

    • To view maps with legislative districts and other information, click here.

  • Early Learning Facilities Fund (ELFF): this program is a partnership between the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) and the Department of Commerce. ELFF provides funding for early learning and care providers to expand, remodel, purchase, or construct early learning facilities and classrooms that support children from low-income households. Click here to learn more.

*May offer both child care and preschool programs

  • Head Start: Created in 1965, Head Start is a federally funded preschool program designed to prepare children for school readiness, help identify health and nutrition challenges and opportunities, and partner with families to support desired goals and self-sufficiency. Today, these programs are delivered across the country through 1,600 agencies. This free program primarily serves children ages 3 and 4 whose families earn low incomes according to the Federal Poverty Guidelines. Head Start programs are provided through various agencies and are tailored to meet the local needs of children and families in their service area. Some programs within Head Start include:

    • Early Head Start: supports pregnant women and children from birth to age 3.

    • Migrant and Seasonal Head Start: specifically designed programs to support pregnant women and children birth to age five living in communities with migrant and seasonal workers.

    • Tribal Head Start: these programs support Native children birth to age five and their families, typically living on or near tribal reservations.

Visit the Washington State Association of Head Start and ECEAP website to learn more.

Visit the DCYF website to learn more about Head Start and state collaborative efforts.

  • Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program: Modeled after the federal Head Start program, The Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP) was developed in Washington state in 1985 to provide free early learning and care to additional families with similar eligibility requirements. ECEAP was designed to “provide a combination of education, health and nutrition screening and assistance, parent involvement, and family support” for children ages 3 to 5 and funded by the state of Washington. According to the Department of Children, Youth, and Families, there are currently 15,697 funded ECEAP slots for 2022-2023;178 slots are designated for Early ECEAP. 

    • ECEAP slot availability ranges from part-day, school-day, and working-day; the majority of slots are part-day (8,874 slots).

    • One of the state’s newest programs, Early ECEAP, supports pregnant women and children from birth to age 3. According to DCYF:
      “The federal funds are for the program years 2020-2023 and are designed to fund Early ECEAP as a pilot project. The pilot project will provide services to 144 children and families by 10 contractors spread throughout the state. Early ECEAP is one program among many in the PDG B-5, allowing DCYF to bring innovation and increased capacity to the early learning and family support systems in Washington State for infants and toddlers and their families. Early ECEAP is administered in DCYF by the ECEAP team. Early ECEAP will be built on the model and successful outcomes of Early Head Start (EHS) center-based and family child care models. The Early ECEAP standards are based on EHS performance standards. Using the flexibility of a pilot project and the expertise of the ECEAP team, we will use the next 2.5 years on revising and improving these standards, creating the Washington State model.” Click here to learn more about Early ECEAP.

Visit the DCYF website to learn more about the eligibility criteria and differences between Head Start and ECEAP; for reference, the 2022 ECEAP eligibility levels are also below.

ECEAP 2022
  • Developmental Preschools: these programs provide children with intellectual and developmental disabilities, among other special needs, early learning opportunities through their local school district at no cost. They offer certified special education teachers, speech therapists, and other staff to support the success of children with intellectual and developmental needs. Developmental Preschools served approximately 9,565 children in the 2021-22 school year (Department of Children, Youth, and Families).

  • Outdoor/Nature Based Preschool: DCYF licensed Washington’s first outdoor, nature-based preschool program in September of 2019 – making Washington the first state in the country to license an outdoor preschool program. Click here to learn more. These preschool programs provide additional beneficial learning opportunities and access to high quality early learning opportunities in outdoor settings such as parks, forests, and oceanside. To learn more about Washington’s outdoor preschool programs, click here.

  • Private Preschools: varying widely in curriculum, tuition and eligibility, private preschools providing four hours or less of instruction a day are not licensed but may be certified with the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) or accredited through their unique program approach. Montessori and Waldorf are commonly classified as private preschool programs.
    NOTE: Private preschools that operate more than four hours per day are subject to child care licensing and DCYF oversight.

  • Co-Op Preschools: these programs provide parents the opportunity to help participate in their child’s education in a classroom setting. In fact, many community colleges and vocational schools in Washington state house co-op preschools. They offer learning environments to young children paired with educational opportunities for their caregiver – caregivers are involved in all aspects of running the preschool, including co-teaching one day per week.

  • Seattle Preschool Program (SPP): this is a high-quality, evidence-based preschool program offered by the Seattle Department of Education and Early Learning (DEEL) in partnership with a network of preschool providers throughout the city, including both community-based providers and Seattle Public Schools.

  • Transitional Kindergarten (TK): this kindergarten preparation program is for children below the age of five who do not have access to high-quality early learning experiences prior to kindergarten, such as Head Start, ECEAP, or other licensed child care programs. Additionally, they have been deemed by a school district, through a screening process and/or other instrument(s), to be in need of additional preparation to be successful in kindergarten the following year. T-K programs are offered by local school districts using state education funding inside elementary school buildings and use specific screening criteria to determine whether a child needs additional preparation to be most successful prior to starting kindergarten the following year. Click here to learn more about Transitional Kindergarten programs.

Nearly two-thirds of all Washingtonians live in what’s called a child care desert. A child care desert is any census tract with over 50 children younger than 5 years old that contains “either no child care providers or so few options that there are more than three times as many children as licensed child care slots” (

Child care in Washington state is primarily funded through private pay from families. Child care for eligible low income families is subsidized through Working Connections Child Care (WCCC). WCCC’s current caseload is approximately 26,400 (Department of Children, Youth, and Families). See DCYF’s 2022 eligibility chart below for the maximum monthly income limit by household size or click here.

DCYF Eligibility

Looking ahead, the child care subsidy co-pay cap will increase to $165 in 2023, and the household income eligibility will increase to 75% of the state’s median income in 2025 (Department of Children, Youth, and Families).

Market Rate Survey vs. Cost Modeling

Currently, child care subsidy reimbursement rates in Washington are based on a market rate survey. In its 2022 report, The Childcare Collaborative Task Force is recommending that the legislature establish subsidy rates based on a Cost Model, rather than on a Market Rate Survey.

Market Rate Survey

Federal rules establish the following benchmarks for a market rate survey in order to be eligible for federal funding:

  • Include the full priced child care market.

  • Contain complete and current data.

  • Represent geographic variation.

  • Use rigorous data collection procedures.

  • Analyze data in a manner that captures market differences.

According to the Bipartisan Policy Center Report of Market Rate Surveys and Alternative Rate Setting Methodology:

“States are responsible for determining the policies related to these components, including how much child care programs are paid for serving children whose families are eligible to receive a child care subsidy. While states are not required to pay child care programs the same amount a program charges a typical private-pay family, states are required to set rates high enough that families receiving a child care subsidy have the same access to comparable child care options as families not receiving a subsidy. 


In other words, since a child care program does not have to accept a child care subsidy, the payment rate of the subsidy must be set high enough that most child care programs would be willing to accept it. If the subsidy rate is significantly lower than what a child care program charges private-pay parents, there is no market-driven reason for a child care program to give a slot to a family with a subsidy when other families are willing to pay the full rate.”

The prices child care programs charge often do not reflect the true cost of providing child care. Again, from the Bipartisan Policy Center Report of Market Rate Surveys and Alternative Rate Setting Methodology:

“Market rates represent the tuition and fees that child care programs charge private-pay families. However, the prices child care programs charge often do not reflect the true cost of providing child care that meets regulatory health and safety standards, and never meet the cost of quality child care. For example, cost modeling by the District of Columbia found in most cases a program’s estimated cost of delivering child care services was more than the revenue generally available to the program, and this gap was the largest for small programs that mostly served infants and toddlers. In order to fill slots, programs must charge what families can pay.”

Currently, Washington state's subsidy covers the ~65th percentile of child care tuition, resulting in fewer programs being able to accept subsidy as a form of payment; Governor Inslee’s proposed budget for 2023 includes an increase to the 85th percentile.

Screenshot 2024-02-14 114446.png

Click here to view/download a PDF of the LEAP Primer.

Early Family Support
Child Care Programs
Preschool Programs

Cost Modeling

A cost estimation model incorporates both available data and certain assumptions to estimate expected costs associated with running a child care business. According to the Bipartisan Policy Center: “The assumptions used in cost estimation models often deal with the structure of the program (such as the number of children, facility size and features, group size, teacher to child ratios) and any other required inputs (such as labor, materials and supplies, food service, administration, transportation), combined with the prices or cost of each of these inputs.”

Click here for the latest reports and information from the Childcare Collaborative Task Force.

Here’s a look ahead at a timeline moving to the cost of quality (Department of Children, Youth, and Families):

DCYF Cost of Quality

Based on the science of early childhood development, we know that stable and nurturing adult-child relationships, exposure to broad vocabulary, strong social/emotional development, and executive function skills will help build a strong foundation for later learning and offer exponential benefits to society for years to come. Just imagine what could be possible if every family in Washington could access affordable, high-quality child care and early learning opportunities – and know that YOU can make it possible!

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