Think big with investments in early childhood education

The research couldn’t be clearer: The earlier children receive high-quality learning opportunities, the more likely they are to stay in school and achieve success. Early learning helps prevent poverty, crime, and a host of other social ills that cost taxpayers money. But even more important, early learning helps little kids grow up to lead meaningful, productive and satisfying lives.

The state Legislature understood these benefits in 1985 when it created the Early Childhood Education Assistance Program (ECEAP) to provide early learning for preschool-aged children from families with incomes of 110 percent or less than the federal poverty level. Children also qualify if they have special needs or if they are at risk of certain adverse childhood experiences, such as family violence or homelessness.

In 2013, lawmakers directed the Washington State Institute for Public Policy to evaluate the state’s return on investment in ECEAP. The institute found that ECEAP improved third-, fourth- and fifth-grade test scores by almost twice the margin of early learning programs in other states.

The institute also reports that improved student outcomes generate about $4.75 of benefits for every dollar of cost. That finding squares with national studies that regard early learning as a catalyst for economic development. When people lead productive lives they pay more taxes, and consume fewer government services.

The report supports Gov. Jay Inslee’s budget proposal for the state’s largest-ever investment in early learning -- $156.3 million. Nearly $80 million would go to ECEAP, creating space for an additional 6,358 children. That’s significant progress, but still not enough to enroll all those who need this program. Today ECEAP only enrolls 2 percent of the state’s 3-year-olds, and 8 percent of 4-year-olds. There are more than another 20,000 eligible children who ought to be enrolled.

But not all children qualify for ECEAP. So Inslee’s proposal also provides about $71 million for the state’s Early Achievers program, which rates child care providers on the effectiveness of their early learning strategies, and trains them to emulate ECEAP practices. Studies show that any quality learning opportunity improves a child’s success rate in K-12, so improving the quality of learning in “regular” child care could make a big difference in kids’ lives.

Research tells us 85 percent of the human brain develops before age 5, making the early years critical to future success. And because each school year builds on the one before, it’s logical to invest in laying a foundation on which all future learning builds.

According to ReadyNation.org, children who participate in early learning programs need 43 percent fewer special education placements, are 44 percent more likely to graduate from high school, and enjoy a 36 percent increase median earnings.

As state lawmakers figure out how to fully fund K-12 basic education and how to address the voter-approved initiative to lower class sizes, they should not overlook investments in early learning. Inslee has proposed a minimum, in our view. A forward-looking Legislature would double down on that amount.