Universal pre-kindergarten in Washington State?

Across the country, people are waking up to the fact that investments in universal early education pay off. Will Washington State make a commitment to giving its kids a similarly strong start in the upcoming legislative session? The short answer is: maybe.

Before we get to the longer answer, a quick look at recent developments in early learning:

Oklahoma has had state-funded pre-kindergarten in place for 18 years, and offered it universally for nearly a decade. More than two-thirds of Oklahoma 4-year-olds are enrolled – the highest rate in the country. It’s proven to make a difference. According to USA Today:

Pre-kindergarten…in Oklahoma boosts kids’ skills dramatically, a long-awaited study finds, for the first time offering across-the-board evidence that universal preschool, open to all children, benefits both low-income and middle-class kids.

Meanwhile, the “other Washington” isn’t waiting around for more studies:

Last month, the District of Columbia Council took an important step towards making universal pre-k a reality in the District by passing Pre-Kindergarten Expansion and Enhancement Act. This new, comprehensive legislation seeks to provide pre-k to every 3- and 4- year old in the District whose parents want it by 2014. (from Early Ed Watch)

So what about Washington State? Will our state’s leaders promote high-quality, affordable, early childhood education for every child?

A state task force is currently debating whether to include early education in the definition of a “basic education”. It’s said they will deliver not just a report, but actual legislation, for policymakers to consider when they report to Olympia in January.

A broad coalition of community organizations, child care providers, physicians and others has been bending the the task force’s collective ear, most recently by issuing a statement that read in part:

We agree upon the following principles…

  1. Early learning has both a constitutional and a legislative foundation for inclusion in an updated definition of Basic Education.
  2. Extensive research confirms that high quality early learning experiences benefit children, and offer a significant return on investment of state dollars.
  3. We agree on where this work should begin: a) Immediate targeted early interventions for children deemed at risk of school failure; b) A commitment over time to ensure that all children are “school ready.”
  4. Quality early education should continue to be provided through a mixed delivery system which draws on the strengths of families as well as services provided in a variety of settings.

I imagine those parents who are having to participate in a lottery to get coveted spots in some school district’s pre-k programs would like very much for the state to make early learning a seamless part of our education system.

Ditto those business leaders who have been thinking for a long time about how to create a high-quality workforce in the years ahead.

But will we pony up the dollars needed for it?

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