Thursday, February 16, 2017

Update on Licensing, Health, and Safety at DEL

To the Early Learning Community,

The Department of Early Learning, which I have the honor to direct, regulates thousands of small businesses that provide childcare to 180,000 children in Washington every year. You hear a lot about “regulations crushing small businesses” and “regulations being critical to ensure safety.” Finding a balance between adequate safety and supporting childcare providers is important to getting the best outcomes for kids. 
  • We do fingerprint-based background checks on anyone who has unsupervised access to children, about 50,000 of these a year. This ensures that sex predators and people with a history of abusing or neglecting their own children don’t get to work in the industry. 
  • We make sure childcare facilities have fire safety checks, have safe playgrounds, have enough square footage to provide enough room for kids to move around, don’t have dangerous cords hanging down from window blinds, don’t have cleaning products or weapons accessible to children, etc. 
  • We make sure there are enough adults in the classroom to ensure safety. There are national standards for this kind of thing and we work hard to follow them. 
  • We ensure that facilities follow practices like safe sleep, food prep safety, good diapering practice to avoid fecal coliform infections, etc. 
  • We ensure minimum provider education levels because outcomes are much better for kids when they have a provider with a stronger educational background. 
  • We follow federally-required annual inspection schedules and incident follow-up deadlines.

Our goal is to prevent injuries and fatalities. Despite our best efforts some will occur, but many fewer than if we didn’t have rules providers have to follow.

In addition, we have a voluntary system (“Early Achievers”) that measures the quality of childcare. For taxpayer-subsidized kids we require at least a level 3 on our 5 point scale because it’s better for kids and we think taxpayers have a right to insist that they only pay for high-quality care. We pay more for higher quality care and instruction because it costs more. It’s worth it because we get better outcomes. Read more about Early Achievers here.

Like any regulator, we get complaints from the businesses that we regulate. They complain that our regulations cost too much to comply with, that our enforcement is biased against them because they are X, Y, or Z, or that we are inconsistent in our enforcement. Providers that have more than one location served by different licensors often have evidence that this is so, with different problems treated differently by different licensors. 

I try to approach problems like this analytically, so I asked for a systematic review of discipline practices across the state in my first few months. It turns out the businesses are right – we have different practices in different places, and often between different licensors inside the same office.  This isn’t OK, but it is a challenge to fix.  We have to have the regulation, but we also have to enforce it the right way. To improve the consistency and appropriateness of our licensing effort we’re doing the following: 
  1. Clarify the rules. Our rules should be readable by providers who have a high school education, our minimum educational requirement. We are in the middle of a complete re-write of what was a complex, multi-part document that had been written in pieces over decades. We’re aiming to be consistent across different types of facility – family child care homes, centers, and our state-run preschool program called ECEAP.
  2. Set clear expectations about consequences for violations. Safe sleep violations put vulnerable infants at risk of crib death. Keeping your paperwork in order so you don’t waste the licensor’s time checking everyone’s CPR training status is important, but perhaps not as much as safe sleep. We’re “weighting” the rules so our licensors and the small businesses we regulate can see how seriously violations of different rules will be treated.
  3. Training our staff. We’re planning to engage in a continuous review process on the new rules. Licensors will gather in groups to work through responses to common (and uncommon) situations that often get different responses and ensure that we’re all treating things the same way. We’ll document these cases to use as training for new licensors, and make them available to providers to see actual examples.

This isn’t an overnight project. The rules revision alone has already taken most of a year and we expect another 6-10 months of feedback, analysis and work to finalize the changes. It’s hard enough to change rules that we want to get it right. This is called the “Alignment” project, and you can read about it here.

We’re in the middle of the “weighting” process now, and are using a somewhat complicated but evidence-based approach to this to ensure that lots of stakeholders have input into the weights. Read about the weighting process here. 

Part of ensuring consistency of application of these rules is having an appeals process that makes sense. Our current process is just to have the supervisor of the original licensor review the decision. This doesn’t result in a lot of corrected actions and also doesn’t help build consistent practice. We’re moving to a new system where appeals go to a rotating group of experienced licensors who get to look at appeals monthly, without identifying information. This eliminates any implicit bias we may have about a provider and gets a single interpretation across the whole agency of the issue that’s come up. Our new process should roll out this spring. 

In addition to the formal steps we’re taking, we are investing in upgrading our software infrastructure so that licensors can track their observations on regular monitoring visits. Our new system is based on and works in the cloud.  We expect it to be easier to manage as well as being a useful tool to see how peers react to concerns a particular licensor may have. 

Building a regulatory system that is too extreme can result in significant compliance costs for providers. There need to be some rules (not having enough adults in the building is cheaper, but very, very dangerous) but having too many onerous rules can push providers out of the licensed world. Sometimes it’s hard for parents to tell the difference, but it matters. We shut down an unlicensed facility in 2016 when we discovered there were way too many infants for one provider to manage and a person living in the household who was a level one sex predator with a gun collection. You might not be able to see this from the outside, but you don’t want your kid there. 

Finding the right balance is tricky, and we depend on public input to make the determination. It’s like taxes. It always feels to a taxpayer that their taxes are too high, but the societal costs of having an inadequate education system that the taxes pay for are much more severe. The safety and outcome implications of getting the balance of childcare regulation wrong are pretty severe as well, and it’s worth being thoughtful about how we approach it. 

We’ll keep updating and engaging with you over the next year as the projects I mentioned above move forward.


Ross Hunter
Director, Washington State Department of Early Learning

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

DEL's Racial Equity Initiative: Closing the Gap

Race matters. During my time in the legislature I saw how government policies can dis-proportionally impact people of color. The way agencies make decisions and implement programs can have profound effects on the people they are trying to serve. Why does this matter for an agency like the Department of Early Learning? Because Washington is becoming increasingly diverse - 44 percent of the estimated 446,000 children under 5 years of age are from racial and ethnic backgrounds that are either American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian, Black, Hispanic/Latino, multiracial, or Pacific Islander. Children of color are the fastest growing subgroup of all children under 5, and currently make up 60 percent of children under 5 years of age living in the lowest-income households.[1]
Race/Ethnicity of WA Young Children Under 5
by Household Income, 2015

While children of color currently account for 46% of the kindergarten population, they only make up 38.6% of the children who enter kindergarten ready for what lies ahead.[2] And we know that the opportunity gap doesn’t shrink in a child’s K-12 career.[3] When I put forth a goal for DEL to get 90% of kids ready for kindergarten by 2020, I very intentionally included in that goal that race and family income should no longer be predictors of readiness. With that in mind, I established a Racial Equity Initiative at the agency.

WA Opportunity & Achievement Gaps by Race/Ethnicity,
2015-16 School Year
Our focus for 2017 is to lay a strong foundation for ongoing efforts. This is not a quick fix with instant gratification. Making systemic change takes time and stamina. While I expect some short term results from my team, I am fully on board with a long-term commitment and strategy developed and implemented in partnership with families, communities of color and key partners.

Here’s what our plan looks like:

A. Develop and implement a comprehensive racial equity strategy. This strategy includes: 
  • A racial equity framework or shared approach to leading for equity. This framework will include a vision for the early learning system, principles, and a shared understanding of the historical and current context, language/definitions, and key concepts. 
  • A racial equity plan with specific goals, data, benchmarks, and priorities that lead to the greatest impact on closing opportunity gaps and removing barriers for children, families, and professionals of color. This plan will build on the Racial Equity Theory of Change for Early Learning. It will include both internal and external-facing strategies for DEL programs, policies, and practices with clear actions and accountability mechanisms. 
B. Develop and continually refine tools and processes (making time to gather input and consider impacts at planning and decision points) necessary to implement the racial equity strategy, including: 
  • Tailored racial equity impact analysis tools for program, policy, grant application, initiatives, and budget development. 
  • An agency-wide family, community, and stakeholder engagement protocol to ensure policies and decisions are meaningfully informed and influenced by those most impacted and marginalized. 
  • Disaggregated data and metrics to track results and measure the impact of DEL’s actions at the child/family/community level and outcomes at the program/agency level. 
C. Train and support DEL staff to increase their knowledge, awareness, and capacity to lead for equity
  • The first step is to convene and support a Racial Equity Team that will provide leadership in developing the racial equity strategy, tools, training, and processes. Team members will model culturally and linguistically responsive practices. They will play a critical role in setting the conditions and environment necessary to engage others in racial equity conversations and efforts.
Though DEL is at the forefront of many things, we are definitely not the first to undertake something like this. The City of Seattle, King County, the Puget Sound ESD, and a number of other governmental institutions have been implementing racial equity programs for several years. Lawmakers and bureaucrats are slowly coming to the realization that we cannot effect the change we’re seeking without making change internally and with the guidance and leadership of communities.

I’ll be personally participating in training sessions and will be guided in my decision making by the Racial Equity Team and its manager, Evette Jasper. As a white man from Microsoft and the Legislature, I’m doing my best to lead DEL as an ally to all of our providers, families, and children. My goal is to leverage the amazing opportunities we have to close the persistent and pernicious opportunity gap. I hope you join me in this critical and exciting work.

Thank you,

Ross Hunter
Director, Washington State Department of Early Learning

Read my statement on DEL’s support for inclusion and tolerance.

Want to learn more about the initiative and our progress at DEL in eliminating race as a predictor of kindergarten readiness? Visit this page.

[1] American Community Survey PUMS 2015 1-year data
[2] WaKIDS 6/6 readiness rates and kindergarten enrollment
[3] WaKIDS percent 6/6 and English Language Arts SBA percent met standard

Monday, February 13, 2017

WA Celebrates 30 Years of Comprehensive Pre-K

Taken at Tacoma Day ECEAP site
in Tacoma, WA.
The Washington State Department of Early Learning (DEL) celebrated 30 years of serving Washington children and families with the state's exemplary Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP), the state's version of Head Start.

The program estimates serving approximately a quarter of a million children since it's start 30 years ago. Since then, the program has expanded and continues to grow with support and success. 

More about ECEAP

ECEAP provides early learning preschool or home-based services to support children’s development and learning that includes:
  • Family support and parent involvement.
  • Child health coordination and nutrition.
  • Services responsive and appropriate to each child's and family's heritage and experience.

ECEAP models include:
  • Part Day classes are 2 ½ or more hours, several days a week, during the school year.
  • Full School Day classes are 5.5-6.5 hours per day, 4 or 5 days a week, during the school year.
  • Extended Day is available at least 10 hours a day, year round, combining child care and ECEAP. Parents must meet work or training requirements.
For more information about eligibility and enrollment, go here:

How DEL Celebrated

Senator Andy Billig address his
community about ECEAP in Spokane.
DEL hosted two events, one in Spokane on October 4 and at the Hands On Children's Museum in Olympia on February 9. Both events welcomes guest speakers including Senator Andy Billig (in Spokane) and Representative Ruth Kagi (in Olympia), as well as real ECEAP teachers.

The event in Spokane welcomed over 100 guests from the ECEAP community and was featured state-wide in one of DEL's first ever Facebook Live posts.

ECEAP kids shared their wishes for the
future on star center pieces.
In Olympia, former ECEAP teacher, Sophia Rychener shared stories of the many children and families she has helped in Thurston County, and guests from Child Care Aware of Washington and the Washington Association of Head Start and ECEAP came to show support. 

"While we can see that few children start their Pre-K year in ECEAP with kindergarten entry skills," said Ross Hunter, DEL Director, "at the end of one year of ECEAP, the percentage of kids with kindergarten entry skills is higher, and with even more ECEAP, the outcomes are even greater."
Representative Ruth Kagi and DEL Director Ross Hunter
have fun at the Hands On Children's Museum in Olympia.
For more information about outcomes for kids in ECEAP, go here: ECEAP Outcomes Report.
If you own an early learning program that is interested in becoming an ECEAP site, go here: ECEAP Letters of Interest.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

WA Continues to Support Diversity, Inclusiveness in Early Ed


Hello Partners in Early Learning,

Following the Governor’s recent remarks on President Donald Trump’s Executive Order on Immigration, the Washington State Department of Early Learning (DEL) would like to reinforce our state’s commitment to supporting diversity and inclusion, not only for the general population, but within Washington’s team of high-quality early educators, early intervention service providers and our state’s smallest learners.

I want to make clear what our responsibilities as an agency entail – ensuring the health and safety of children and supporting high-quality early learning and intervention services. At DEL we work to help children in Washington prepare for success in school and life. We help families build resilience and ensure they have high-quality choices for the care of their children, no matter their race, religion, or place of birth. For nearly all of our programs, we do not collect data on immigration status or religious affiliation of the children and their parents, and we will not begin doing so. 

We are committed to supporting providers who offer high-quality and culturally relevant care, who reflect the communities they serve, and who have a deep degree of understanding and empathy for the challenges faced by many of our children and families.
Taken at Tacoma Day ECEAP site in Tacoma, WA.
Washington is becoming increasingly diverse, with 44 percent of the estimated 446,000 children under 5 years of age from racial and ethnic backgrounds that are either American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian, Black, Hispanic/Latino, multiracial, or Pacific Islander. These kids are the fastest growing subgroup of children under 5. Our state has a long legacy of inclusiveness and tolerance, and it’s our responsibility to keep it alive. The diversity of Washington families is crucial to our success and future. 

DEL will absolutely not discriminate or enact policy that discriminates based on nationality, race, or religion. As always, I welcome your feedback on this, and I encourage you to join me in supporting the potential of every child.


Ross Hunter
Director, Washington State Department of Early Learning

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Becoming ECEAP: WA Seeks Pre-K Declarations of Interest

The Department of Early Learning (DEL) seeks to collect information from early learning settings that may want to provide Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP) services. 

The surveys linked below are open to public and private organizations, including school districts, educational service districts, community and technical colleges, local governments, nonprofit organizations, child care centers, and family child care homes. This survey is the first step in completing the 2017 application for ECEAP slots. It serves as your letter of interest for that application, but does not obligate you to apply.

Please complete a survey by February 24 if you are interested in either:
  • Becoming an ECEAP contractor and providing the full infrastructure necessary to meet all ECEAP contractual requirements, including the ECEAP Performance Standards.
  • Providing a classroom experience for ECEAP children, under the direction of an ECEAP contractor.
Taken at Tacoma Day ECEAP site in Tacoma, WA.
The introduction to the survey contains important information, including information to learn more about ECEAP.  

Please select one:

If you have questions, please email

Monday, January 30, 2017

Quality Matters in Washington Early Learning: Early Start Act Progress

It has now been more than a year since I came to the Department of Early Learning as its new director, and I am gratified by the successes we’ve had in that time. We met the deadline to enroll all existing subsidy providers into Early Achievers head-on. Nearly all providers required to sign up did so - serving more than 37,000 children under 5, or 98 percent of those served in subsidy in FY 2016. This is an inspirational embrace by the provider community of our quest for quality.

In this past year, we also: 
  • rolled out 12-month eligibility, providing increased stability and peace of mind for children and families; 
  • released a report on culturally responsive professional development to serve as a statewide resource by providing expectations for professional development creation, delivery, and evaluation; and 
  • embarked on a robust community input process to align our family home and center child care regulations. 
Governor Inslee signs the Early Start Act, 2015.
We’ve also taken on the Early Start Act’s charge to make the early learning system more diverse and racially equitable. I’ve dedicated staff and resources to the implementation of a racial equity initiative across the agency, and we’ve worked with partners to innovate new ways of supporting our diverse providers and children.

At DEL, we are the stewards of the public trust and the investment made through the Early Start Act. With that in mind, last year we set out an aspirational goal for the agency and the system to get 90 percent of kids ready for kindergarten by the year 2020, with race and family income no longer predictors of success. 
In the intervening months we have made great progress towards that goal, and have developed clear and coherent next steps to move us further down that path. The two most significant levers in supporting child outcomes that the ESA funded, the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP) and Early Achievers, have begun to yield results.
ECEAP is in 36 of 39 counties in Washington, serving more than 11,300 children each year. In the 2014-15 school year, more than 59 percent of ECEAP four year olds were assessed as ready for kindergarten in the spring – by fall of their kindergarten year that number dropped to 37 percent. While that’s still better than their other low-income peers (we estimate 28 percent are ready) we still need to solve this drop-off problem.

There are two solutions that we believe will nearly eliminate that 18-point drop-off:
  • Provide summer ECEAP programming, and 
  • Address problems with the way dual-language learners are being assessed in kindergarten
Beyond that, we know that we are serving families for whom a 3.5 hour per day program doesn’t fit with their schedule. Many kids who are eligible are not participating, so to reach not only the spirit of preschool entitlement, but the intent as well, we need to provide programming that fits the needs of families by providing full-day and extended-day program options. Read more about DEL's tactics to improve school readiness here: Full Report.

I now have a more nuanced understanding of the strategies needed to leverage the Early Start Act to get kids to kindergarten readiness, and we’re beginning to more clearly see the effect sizes of different investments. 
One reality that has become overwhelmingly clear to me is that while the Early Start Act’s funded services are critical, they are not sufficient. Many of the children DEL serves have complicated needs and face severe challenges. We need more efficient and tighter sequencing of our birth-to-three services and coordination with other agencies that provide for the welfare of children. Only then will we be able to help every child reach their full potential.
In the next year, I look forward to growing our programs and the sophistication of our analysis of them. We are one year closer to achieving our 90% goal and implementing the intent of the Early Start Act, and I remain proud to helm this effort.

Ross Hunter,

Director, Department of Early Learning

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

A Day in the Life of an Early Learning Center Director

In 2015, DEL featured a set of blog posts that provided an in-depth description of what a family home child care licensor and a center child care licensor encounters on an average day at work.

Today, we will focus on an average day of work for the early learning professionals who run child care programs in centers and in family homes, providing high quality early learning to Washington children. The following post was written after spending a day shadowing Lois Martin, director of the Community Day Center for Children in Seattle’s Central Area. 

About Community Day

Founded by Lula Martin in 1963, Community Day Center for Children (CDCC) is in Seattle’s Central Area neighborhood. They serve 37 children, 13 percent of whom receive Working Connections Child Care subsidy. The CDCC lives up to its philosophy to provide a culturally diverse atmosphere where children learn through social interaction. The staff is comprised of African American and East African educators and the children come from a variety of racial, cultural, ethnic, and economic backgrounds.

Lois Martin wears many hats throughout the day. From her office she has eyes and ears on the activity in each classroom. She communicates regularly with staff over walkie-talkies.  She announces updates to classroom coverage when two teachers are out for the day, advises teachers about shortened outdoor play time schedules because of cold weather, and reminds teachers to look out for flu symptoms after two children go home ill.

Quality Matters

CDCC is participating in Early Achievers, but has not yet been rated. This is evident in her constant attention to child/ teacher ratios and the ability of staff to meet the individual needs of each child even on short-staffed days. Martin shared that she and her teachers were using Early Achievers tools several years before enrolling in the quality improvement program because of the center’s affiliation with the City of Seattle Comprehensive Child Care Program. 
When asked about how Early Achievers influences her day-to-day work, Martin notes that her first priority is the health and safety of the children and her staff. 
Martin shared the importance of utilizing these types of tools to analyze how the center classrooms encourage quality early learning experiences for the children. For example, they recently went through each classroom, as a group, to talk through several environment rating scale checklists and how teachers are using the different materials.

Supporting her teaching staff in their ongoing professional development is another important part of Martin’s role as director. Most of the CDCC educators are in school with three pursuing a Child Development Associate (CDA) certificate, two pursuing Associate of Arts (AA) degrees and one pursuing a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree. Martin helps her staff find conferences and training to aid in their professional development and provides them opportunities to apply their learning as leaders at the center. She wishes there was more time to dedicate to training as a group.

Lois Martin, director of CDCC,
 comforts a sick child sleeping in her lap. 

Community Minded

Martin is also actively involved in the community surrounding the center. Today, in addition to her errands and coordinating adaptive schedule changes in classrooms, she has a phone conversation with a community member about plans for the dedication of new outdoor space on the Garfield Campus and their hope that it will become a community living room that serves as a safe space for all. She recalls the ways the neighborhood has changed over the 24 years she has been directing the center. While most of the children live within an 8-block radius of the center, many center teachers are no longer able to afford to live in the neighborhood. 

The ability to retain and continue to provide high quality care to families who receive Working Connections Child Care (WCCC) subsidies was the major impetus in the center becoming a part of the Early Achievers program.  It is important to Martin that CDCC maintain a socio-economic mix of families at the center, so she is willing to take the extra steps to make this possible. For example, today she makes a call to the DSHS provider line to confirm the center received a past-due co-payment.  Then Martin calls the parent to assure her the balance is cleared up and a called was placed to the WCCC call center.  
“If you really enjoy it, it becomes a part of your life and everything you do… That is how you obtain quality, we must pay attention to it every day,” Martin said.
As the day comes to an end, parents stop in to chat with Martin. She shares highlights from the day and they laugh about communal stories. She pulls out the walkie-talkie and cheerily praises her staff for their good work taking care of each other and the children on a short-staffed day, and reminds them to stop by the office to pick up treats left by a family in appreciation for the center’s dedicated staff.

Know of a special place where Washington children grow and learn? Send ideas to