Politics & Government

Gregoire wants certification for all preschools

OLYMPIA - Gov. Chris Gregoire said Monday that she wants all preschools for children ages 3 and 4 to be certified by the state.

Gregoire said that under her proposed “All Start” preschool program, certification would ensure that all preschools would operate under the same standards set by the Department of Early Learning.

“It’s important to note that today, we have no standards for preschool programs,” Gregoire said at a news conference, joined by Bette Hyde, director of the state Department of Early Learning.

Also, Gregoire added, preschool teachers are not required to undergo background checks.

The state currently oversees about 7,600 licensed child care facilities around the state that serve about 175,000 children, officials said. But under current law, any program that operates for less than four hours a day is exempt from licensing, which means an unknown number of facilities and in-home programs have preschool, said Amy Blondin, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Early Learning.

Gregoire said her proposed measure will help parents make better choices about preschool for their children.

“Requiring our preschools to be certified will improve the quality of education while ensuring safety,” she said.

Under Gregoire’s plan, more low-income parents would receive financial help on a sliding scale to send their children to preschool. Under two current programs, parents receive state help if they are below 110 percent or 130 percent of the federal poverty level.

Gregoire’s proposal would expand that to parents with incomes under 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

At the request of the Democratic governor, bills have been introduced in both the Democratic-controlled Senate and House. The House bill is scheduled for a hearing this afternoon before the Early Learning & Children’s Services Committee.

Under the measure, the Department of Early Learning would start phasing in the program as money is available, with the intent of a 2013 launch. The bill calls for the program to be available to all 3-year-old and 4-year old children by September 2020. The program would be implemented first in areas that have state-funded all-day kindergarten programs.

Rep. Larry Haler of Richland, the ranking Republican on the committee that will hear the House bill, said the state can’t afford new programs in a year when it is facing a $2.6 billion deficit.

“I support it in spirit, but I can’t support it in its intent because it raises the budget,” he said.

Haler said he has introduced a bill that would develop a program for early learning for the most disadvantaged children but said that he didn’t agree with the governor’s idea of increasing the level to 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

Gregoire and Hyde said they could not provide a price tag for the proposed program. But Gregoire said that even in a tough financial year, it was important to start the framework for the program.

“While we may not have a dime to our name today, that doesn’t mean we can sit and do nothing,” she said.

Gregoire also on Monday promoted a list of education reforms she wants approved to set Washington up to compete for money from the federal Race to the Top initiative, which urges states to improve student performance, shrink achievement gaps and raise graduation rates.

Among her proposals: Extend the evaluation period for a new teacher from two years to three years, develop criteria and standards to evaluate teachers and principals, and create a plan to pay teachers more for innovation, improving achievement gaps or developing a program that focuses on science and technology.

“This isn’t just about qualifying for Race to the Top,” Gregoire said. “This is about doing what’s right for Washington state.”