Prekindergarten must be part of basic education

The 2010 legislative session is a pivotal time for early childhood learning in this state. Lawmakers must include the prekindergarten years as part of basic education and continue to fund programs that prepare children and families for the early school years.

Ten years ago, little research and even less public attention was directed toward early childhood education. Some children showed up for kindergarten knowing their colors and shapes, able to count and do rudimentary math and many had the social skills necessary to interact well with other children.

Other kindergartners came totally ill-prepared for the academic and social challenges that faced them.

While that’s still true today, great strides have been made in the past decade to raise the public’s awareness about brain development and the need to focus on those early learning years.

Molly Boyajian is director of early learning initiatives for Thrive by Five, a public/private partnership focused on the prekindergarten years. She says, “Investments in the early years is cheaper, better for the kids and more successful. If we get it wrong in the beginning with kids, it’s hard to go back and fix it later on.”

Science and the study of brain development verify that.

Research shows that 85 percent of the brain’s core structure – size, core, growth and much of its hard wiring – is developed by age 4. Yet in those pivotal years, less than 9 percent of the public’s investments in education and development is done, Boyajian said.

In 2006, state legislators and Gov. Chris Gregoire understood the need to put more emphasis and money in the early years when they created the state Department of Early Learning. It’s a Cabinet-level agency with 172 employees, most of whom are employed in the licensing arena.

The creation of the Department of Early Learning was a big step forward. For the first time there’s coordination among educators, social workers, parents, child advocates, physicians and other providers, working in collaboration to ensure that developing young minds get the attention they deserve and that children are prepared to meet the academic, social and emotional challenges that lie ahead of them.

“The research is clear – the education a child receives before the age of 5 is crucial to that child’s future academic success,” said Chris Korsmo, executive director of the League of Education Voters. “The more we invest in our children in those years before kindergarten, the more we are giving our children an advantage to compete during the rest of their school years and beyond.”

The first major assignment for the Department of Early Learning was to create a statewide plan that identifies key programs and strategies that help kids succeed. It could be a nurse who visits the family and talks to parents about proper nutrition. It could be a counselor who identifies a learning disability before the child shows up at the schoolhouse door. Or it could be a social worker who sees to it that an at-risk child living in poverty is enrolled in a Head Start program.

The state’s 10-year plan is in draft form and should be ready for adoption by late spring. That, too, is a positive step forward and having the plan in place, and spending priorities set should boost Washington state’s chance to receive part of President Barack Obama’s $1 billion Early Learning Challenge Fund. Obama along with Democrats and Republicans in Congress get it. They understand that investments in early childhood education pay huge dividends later on.

While not a national leader, Washington state is nonetheless well positioned to land its share of the federal pot of money. When matched with state dollars, that’s money that will help kids succeed.

The Legislature can boost Washington’s chances of financial success by signaling the state’s long-term commitment to high-quality prekindergarten learning. Lawmakers can do that by including prekindergarten learning as part of the state’s definition of basic education. Gov. Gregoire was right last year when she vetoed a section of the new basic education law because it did not include all students. Washington’s law must be inclusive and guarantee early childhood education to all, not just at-risk or targeted populations.

Lawmakers also must continue to press for certification of preschools to ensure that there are consistent standards of excellence. Certification can, and must, serve as a check on quality programs. Strong assessment and measurement tools are part of the solution, as are continued funding for proven early childhood education programs and coordination of efforts between the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and the Department of Early Learning.

Korsmo, from the League of Education Voters, was right when she said, “If we take a few steps now to invest in our state early education program, we are poised to qualify for those federal dollars. That would be a historic opportunity for our state and our children. We want to make sure all children in our state are afforded the same opportunities during the most critical time for brain development in their lives.”

Lawmakers have the opportunity to do just that.