Column: It’s important to fund early learning in state budget

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All children deserve a strong start in life. From the White House to New York City to Olympia, public officials are building resolve to act on something that parents and teachers have long known: High-quality early childhood experiences lay a solid foundation for the future.

But in Washington state, quality early learning is beyond the reach of many.

More than half our state’s 5-year-olds enter kindergarten without the skills they need to succeed. Assessments in the first few weeks of kindergarten show that school readiness varies widely by race and ethnicity. This is unacceptable.

The Children’s Alliance and our many partners in the Early Learning Action Alliance have been working closely with state lawmakers on an early learning solution to close the opportunity gap. House Bill 2377, the Early Start Act, is just that solution.

The act, which won bipartisan yes votes from 64 of the state House’s 98 members, will significantly improve the quality of child care available to children in lower-income families and communities. But it still needs funding to accomplish what it set out to achieve.

We strongly support the Early Start Act’s ambitious goals for improving the experiences of kids, whether they’re in child-care centers, licensed in-home settings or in the care of family, friends or trusted neighbors.

The Early Start Act also contains important reforms. Currently, the Working Connections Child Care program disqualifies a family when it goes through a temporary change in circumstances. Stability in a child’s earliest years is a strong predictor of success later on.

By authorizing child-care assistance to lower-income working families for 12 months at a time, the act will prevent disruptions in kids’ care, help parents maintain stable employment, and ease financial uncertainty for child-care providers.

Sultan mother Juliana Johnson knows firsthand why 12-month authorization is so valuable. Diagnosed with a pregnancy-induced heart problem, she had to stop working. A doctor ordered bed rest.

As a result of the lost income, she lost the financial assistance from Working Connections. Her older children were sent home from the pre-K program they loved.

When laws disrupt children’s education, laws need to be changed.

The Early Start Act also calls for professional development pathways for a diverse range of child-care providers, requiring training resources that reflect the cultural, demographic and language needs of early learning professionals from all walks of life.

Whether your family came to Washington 100 years ago from Sweden, or 10 years ago from Somalia, you should be able to find quality early learning for your children.

Quality early learning programs save money. An analysis by the independent Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that every child enrolled in quality pre-K nets our state an average return on investment of $15,000 over the course of his or her life.

With so much good in the Early Start Act, what’s the rub? It’s this: If legislators don’t step up to the plate and fund the act, the promise of high-quality early learning would be lost.

To date, Washington lawmakers have had a good record of supporting early learning. Directing the resources needed to make Early Start a reality will test policymakers’ commitment to early learning as an education strategy.

To pass the test, state legislators must appropriate funding for the Early Start Act. House Bill 2796 is a good start. It would eliminate and narrow tax preferences to fund early learning and K-12 education.

The education of our children is too important to leave to a future promise.

Jon Gould is deputy director of Children’s Alliance, a Seattle-based nonprofit.

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