Four years after Ortega found custody of his oldest son, the same neighbor is now caring for Ortega’s youngest son, who is 2, and watching his older brother, now 6, before school .
When the couple’s youngest son turns 3, he too can attend Blossoms. He will also have an IEP. Born with microtia, an underdeveloped ear, he has speech problems and will likely experience hearing loss in the affected ear. He receives therapy for both.
“It’s not easy” to work full time, take care of your family and study, Ortega said. In the morning, she drops the boys off early at the neighbor’s, goes to work, leaves work to take the eldest to school, returns to work, and then picks the two up after her shift. She also studies online. And Fuentes still works long days in the fields and performs “industrial safety” tasks – helping other workers with their safety equipment and tools.
While things are better now than during Ortega’s months of sleeping on an inflatable mattress and crying about long, hard work days away from his son, the budget is still very tight. She thinks their household income is around $58,000. With the clothes and shoes constantly pushing the boys, and the typical issues with appliances or a car that needs fixing, Ortega said, “One way or another, as parents, we do our best. Sometimes we stop doing certain things so that we can do others.
Ortega was thrilled to learn in December (from InvestigateWest) of the eligibility changes in Fair Start for Kids. The family may even be eligible now for the Working Connections grant program with a monthly copayment of $115.
Access for children with disabilities
The story of the Ortega family is unusual in several respects: the two children can attend a “understood” full-time preschool program, where children with and without disabilities learn together. And none of the children had disabilities so severe that a neighbor couldn’t care for them.
Under federal law Individuals with Persons with Disabilities Education Act, states are required to provide free education for children starting at age 3 and are encouraged to provide early intervention services for infants and toddlers (all 50 states participate). The law provides funds to help make this possible. It also demands that education be provided in the “least restrictive environment” possible. Also known as inclusion or integration, this should put many children with disabilities in the same classroom as typical children.
Adrienne Stuart, Director of Public Policy at Washington State Council for Developmental Disabilities and mother of children with disabilities, said she had personally experienced and heard from many others that children with developmental disabilities or delays were regularly discriminated against when trying to enroll in private preschools and even public on the grounds that they needed “lodging” to go to the toilet. A close second she hears is the vague denial, “Your child just isn’t ready yet.”
In practice, particularly in Washington State, many preschoolers with disabilities are in special classrooms, where most or all of their classmates have a disability. Washington is one of Least Inclusive States for children with disabilities.
As with child care in general, the problem of finding a quality preschool for a child with a disability hits middle-income families the hardest. They make too much money to easily qualify for an ECEAP slot, but not enough to afford individual care. They face discrimination when trying to find niches with cash-strapped private providers and usually have insufficient resources and remedies to combat this discrimination. This doesn’t even take into account children without IEPs who might still need extra support to succeed. Or that most ECEAP slots don’t cover a full eight to 10 hour workday.
But the problems start even before kindergarten. Stuart said parents of children with disabilities quickly learn that support services from birth to age 3 are extremely limited.
“So parents understand almost from day one that when your child has a developmental disability, you will have to leave the workforce to stay home to care for them. Because childcare slots are sterile for children without disabled and for children who come from affluent households,” Stuart said. “So you throw in a single mom who has a child with a developmental disability, that child has accommodation needs or additional support needs that have to happen in a daycare, and you might as well buy a lotto ticket .”
In Washington State, Fair Start for Kids is funding more services for children with disabilities. A complex needs fund created by law will support inclusive environments for providers who care for children with developmental delays, disabilities, behaviors and other unique needs.
But the Complex Needs Fund is not guaranteed to have money available. And Fair Start does not reduce the teacher-student ratio, which is essential for inclusive education to work, both for children with disabilities and those without, according to Stuart.
Ilene Schwartz, professor and director of Haring Center for Inclusive Education at the University of Washington, said all children with disabilities need better support. The Haring Center runs the popular Preschool and Kindergarten Inclusive Experimental Education Unit, conducts research, and trains teachers statewide.
“The reality is that there aren’t the services – in these early learning programs to help both caregivers and children teach them the behaviors they need,” she said. The rates of preschool expulsions decrease dramatically when teachers have access to behavioral and mental health training.
Independently of Fair Start, a new washington state rule will push public schools to place more children with disabilities in Head Start, ECEAP or in private preschools. This means that more students already enrolled would be educated in non-separated classes and perhaps more students with disabilities would enter preschool.
But Fair Start has delayed ECEAP eligibility for four years, until the 2026-27 school year. So while many children are now “eligible” for this state-funded preschool, and even more will be in years to come, these slots are not available. Enrollment in ECEAP is currently capped at around 15,000 children, with an estimated 21,000 eligible but unserved children by ECEAP or its federal equivalent, Head Start.