Fair Start for Kids Act

Investing in Child Care and Early Learning

With the passage of the Fair Start for Kids Act (SB 5237) on May 7, 2021, lawmakers provided an opportunity to make child care more accessible and affordable for all families in Washington State.

High-quality child care and early learning are critical to a child’s success in school and life. The Fair Start for Kids Act takes a multi-pronged approach at improving child care in Washington State. The legislation will:

  • Reduce copays and expand eligibility for the Working Connections Child Care (WCCC).
  • Expand eligibility and increase rates for the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP).
  • Expand eligibility for enrollment in ECEAP and Early ECEAP.
  • Strengthen child care programs by expanding access to support services, mental health consultations, dual language supports, complex needs funding, and more.
  • Grow recruitment and retention for child care businesses by increasing subsidy rates, expanding access to health insurance for providers, and providing resources for professional development and scholarships.

Major Components of the Fair Start for Kids Act

The following are major initiatives and changes DCYF is undertaking to meet the mandates of the Fair Start for Kids Act.

Working Connections Child Care (WCCC) Program – Supporting Families and Providers

For Families:

On October 1, 2021, DCYF will implement a new copay calculation for families.

DCYF will switch from using Federal Poverty Level to using State Median Income (SMI) to determine WCCC eligibility. Income eligibility will gradually increase, beginning at 60% in October 2021.

DCYF will gradually reduce and restructure copays for families. This begins with a cap of $115 for households at or below 50% of SMI through Jan. 1, 2022, and from Jan. 1, 2022, through July 30, 2023, the copay is capped at $90. For households at or below 60% of SMI copayments are capped at $115 through June 30, 2023.

The work requirements for full time students enrolled in vocational education program at a community, technical, or tribal college, that will lead to an associate degree or registered apprenticeship program, will be waived as a requirement for families to participate in WCCC beginning July 1, 2021.

For Providers:

Beginning July 1, 2021, DCYF will raise the subsidy base rate to the 85th percentile of the market rate for licensed and certified child care providers.

By Jan. 1, 2022, DCYF, working with diverse stakeholders, must develop a rate model for non-standard child care hours and submit the model to the Governor and the Legislature.

Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program Expansion Pre-K Services

For Families:

Beginning in the 2022-23 school year, a child will be eligible for ECEAP if:

  • Their family income is at or below 36% of the State Median Income (SMI)
  • Their family is experiencing homelessness according to the federal McKinney-Vento Act
  • They have participated in any of the following programs:
    • Early Head Start
    • Early Support for Infants and Toddlers (ESIT) or other Class C developmental services
    • Early ECEAP, or
    • Early Childhood Intervention and Prevention Services Program (ECLIPSE)
  • They are eligible for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) special education services under RCW 28A.155.020
  • They are Indian as defined in rule by the department, after consultation and agreement with tribes, and their family income is at or below 100% SMI

As of July 2026, all children who are eligible for ECEAP through these methods will be entitled to be enrolled in the program.

Beginning in the 2022-23 school year, when a child is not eligible for ECEAP, the child may be allowed to be enrolled in the program as space is available, if:

  • Their family income is above 36% SMI but at or below 50% SMI, and their child meets one of the priority factors defined by DCYF. These priority factors are: 
    • Family income as a percent of SMI
    • Child welfare system involvement
    • Eligible for part C developmental services
    • Family experience with domestic violence
    • English language learner
    • Expulsion from an early learning setting
    • A parent who is incarcerated
    • A parent with behavioral health treatment need
    • Other priority factors determined by DCYF that are linked to school success

For the full list of priority factors, please see the Priority Points document on the ECEAP section of the website.

ECEAP staff will meet with Washington’s tribal nations in a series of consultation meetings throughout the coming months in 2021 and 2022 to develop a definition of "Indian Child" to be used for eligibility purposes. Once this definition is agreed upon, it will be added to the Washington Administrative Code (WAC) for DCYF.

For Providers:

Beginning in July 2021, ECEAP contractors will receive a 10% slot rate increase. Beginning July 2022, ECEAP contractors will receive a 2-3% slot rate increase.

Supporting Child Care and Early Learning Providers

Increasing scholarships and expanding eligibility, and implementing community-based pathways for education requirements. Expanding delivery content on anti-bias/anti-racist practices, inclusion practices, trauma-informed care, dual-language program development, and more.

State sponsorship of child care workers on the Washington Health Benefit Exchange, consumer assistance through navigators, as well as any other expansions of access to affordable health care.

  • Complex Needs Fund: Available funding to support children with developmental delays, disabilities, or challenging behaviors due to complex trauma. The Complex Needs Fund (CNF) aims to support developmental and learning gaps for the children who would otherwise start kindergarten behind and continue to fall behind in later school years.
  • Trauma-Informed Care Supports: May include compensation for specialty credentials, training, supportive services, or screening and assessment tools.
  • Dual Language Rate Enhancement: DCYF will establish a designation for this rate enhancement or site-specific grants to provide additional compensations, training, curricula, or materials.
  • Early Childhood Equity Grants: Grants will be to support inclusive and culturally and linguistically specific early learning and early childhood and parent support programs across the state.
  • Infant Rate Enhancements: To incentivize the provision of high-quality infant care, there will be a rate enhancement beginning July 1, 2022.

Check back often for more details about the roll-out of these funds, including how to provide feedback on their design.

Child Care Licensing Expanded Resources and Innovations

DCYF will run a pilot to determine how it may offer a child care license category for multi-site programs that operate under one owner or entity. New or existing licensed child care providers may participate in the pilot. The agency will form a pilot participant group that will include, at least, the following:

  • One governmental agency.
  • One non-profit organization.
  • One for-profit private business.

DCYF will ensure representation in the pilot group comes from a mix of rural, urban, and suburban locations from both sides of the Cascades. By July 1, 2024, DCYF will submit recommendations to the Legislature on whether to permanently implement this license category and what, if any, changes are needed to law to accomplish this. Attention will be given to federal Child Care Development Fund requirements to not jeopardize subsidy eligibility for participants. Those interested in participating should email michelle.balcom@dcyf.wa.gov.

DCYF and the Department of Commerce will work together to provide technical assistance to employers who want to support their employee’s access to high-quality child care. Technical assistance may include guidance related to:

  • Operating a licensed child care center at or near the workplace for the benefit of employees.
  • Financing and construction of a licensed child care center at or near the workplace for the benefit of employees.
  • Providing financial assistance to employees for licensed or certified child care providers and license-exempt child care program expenses.
  • Encouraging access and support for low-wage employees.
  • Sponsoring dependent care flexible spending accounts for employees.
  • Developing a "bring your infant to work" program and other family-friendly work policies for employees.

More information on how employers can access this assistance will be available soon.

The Department of Commerce operates the Early Learning Facilities (ELF) Program, which includes grants and a revolving loan fund. Through ELF, Commerce will award projects in the following categories:

  • Major Construction/Renovation (maximum award $1 million)
  • Minor Renovation/Predevelopment (maximum award $200,000)
  • Pre-Design (maximum award $20,000)

Grant funds can be used for construction, renovation, or the purchase of a facility, as long as the grant will result in an increased number of early learning spaces. Projects must commit to reserving spots for either the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP) and/or the Working Connections Child Care (WCCC) Program.

Eligible grant applicants include family child care homes, child care centers, community and technical colleges, educational service districts, local governments, tribes, religiously affiliated organizations, and affordable housing developers. Projects already completed are not eligible to apply, and awarded applicants must commit to maintaining the site as an early learning facility for at least 10 years.

DCYF will provide technical assistance to providers wishing to apply for these funds and to those programs that are awarded funds. More information about the program can be found here: https://www.commerce.wa.gov/building-infrastructure/capital-facilities/early-learning-program/.

Strengthening Prenatal to Three Supports

  • DCYF to contract with local implementing agencies to expand home visiting services by Oct. 1, 2021.
  • DCYF to provide semi-annual updates to the Home Visiting Advisory Committee (HVAC), including number of families served in home visiting programs and a status of the Home Visiting Services Account balance.
  • By July 1, 2022, HVAC will make recommendations to DCYF and the Legislature on strategies for supporting home visiting providers and serving additional families, including enhancing data system collections and reporting, professional development supports, and rate adjustments to reimburse for the true cost of service delivery.

DCYF to contract for ECLIPSE services to provide therapeutic care and specialized treatment. Funding provided for the expansion of services is intended to serve new geographic areas not currently served by ECLIPSE services. These must focus first on children and families furthest from opportunity as defined by income and be delivered by programs that emphasize greater racial equity.

Funding was provided for expansion of FFN Play and Learn Groups that offer parents and other caregivers culturally responsive opportunities to support their children’s early learning, build relationships that reduce isolation and encourage socialization, and promote kindergarten readiness.

Early ECEAP is a center-based, comprehensive services model for children Birth to 3 located in a variety of communities in our state. Centers opened in the summer, fall of 2020, and are currently serving144 children and families through the Pre-School Development Grant. For the 2021-23 biennium, the Legislature allotted $3.2 million to Early ECEAP to expand services.

Data and Accountability

DCYF will develop public-facing regionalized data dashboards and reports.

By Sept. 15, 2023, DCYF to collaborate with the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) on an integrated early learning report with options and recommendations for aligning and integrating high-quality early learning programs administered by both agencies.

Check back for details and process on this report.

  • Expanded Purview and New Legislative Reports: Gives ELAC the purview of providing guidance on the Fair Start for Kids Account, expands membership. Includes temporary licensing subcommittee.
  • By Aug. 31, 2022, ELAC to work with DCYF to provide annual updates on phased implementation of strategies and priorities.
  • By Sept. 15, 2023, DCYF, in consultation with ELAC, will submit a biennial report to the Governor and Legislature describing how the investments funded by the Fair Start for Kids Act have impacted specific policy objectives.

By September 2022, DCYF will develop a methodology to identify, at the school district level, the geographic locations of where ECEAP slots are needed.

Check back for details and progress on this report.