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Why K-12 superintendents want to spend money on preschool, and why you should too

By Paul Nyhan, from

Star Lake Elementary School in Kent, WA

Star Lake Elementary School in Kent, WA

If you think only new parents and preschool teachers care about early education think again. A few weeks ago, a group of Washington state superintendents, principals, kindergarten teachers and parents called for bigger investments in preschool. You might think they are worried about getting enough money for their K-12 schools this year, given the state’s lean budget. But, they understand preschool’s importance better than most because they see what happens when at-risk students don’t go.

These students start kindergarten behind and often never catch up.

To help all students start school strong, superintendents, school administrators and public officials gathered at Star Lake Elementary School and urged state legislators to invest in the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP), which is the state’s preschool system. Two days later, Governor Jay Inslee agreed, proposing 3,000 new spots in ECEAP classrooms over the next two years.

“All of us as adults, both in and out of education, are hypocrites if we say we are committed to equity, access, and closing the gap but don’t fight to ensure that we are funding pre-k and full-day kindergarten for every child in the state of Washington,” Highline School District Superintendent Susan Enfield said last week. “And so we have to impress upon our legislators, our communities, that this is the very best place that we can put our dollars.”

Enfield sees the problem every day in her own district, where only 20 percent of eligible children attend high-quality pre-kindergarten. Overall, ECEAP reaches a woeful 37 percent of all eligible families.

This is an issue that bridges the political divide. In the state legislature, leaders from both sides of the aisle are lining up to support better preschools and early education. Yesterday, the bipartisan coalition leading the state Senate proposed adding 860 new ECEAP slots over the next two years, at a cost of $22.4 million.

Why? High-quality preschool is a good education and fiscal policy. When students attend strong preschools they are set up to succeed throughout elementary, middle and high school. And a tall and growing stack of studies shows this type of early education saves the K-12 system money by reducing costly special education and remedial interventions.

The Bremerton School District, for example, saves $4,000 per child in kindergarten because it spends fewer dollars on special education and other services thanks to its model early education system that closely connects pre-k and K-3.

Preschool is also a key to solving one of public education’s most stubborn problems: low high school graduation rates. Children who don’t receive high-quality early learning are 25 percent more likely to drop out, according to research cited by the Washington State Association of Head Start & ECEAP, which organized the event.

“We are as a state, investing tons of money in ‘dropout prevention,’ investing tons of money in incarcerating our youth, when really we know the answer comes in early childhood,” Erin Jones, Federal Way School District’s Director of Achievement and Inclusion, said at the Kent, Wa., school. “Drop out is not a secondary issue. It’s not a middle school and high school issue. It’s a preschool and kindergarten issue.”

That’s because in a well-designed preschool, children lay the foundation of critical skills, such as self-control and persistence, they need for a strong start and finish in school.

“I don’t know that I’ve ever had to refer any of my ECEAP children for special services, or even had any that have truly struggled. Because they didn’t need it – they’re my leaders,” Marla Claffey, a kindergarten teacher at Mark Twain Elementary, said. “They’re the ones I count on. They can run things. they can do things. They’re ready.”

The next step is clear. Washington state needs to invest in ECEAP and early education. It will help students and save money now and later.

(Paul Nyhan works with the Washington State Association of Head Start & ECEAP on efforts to increase investments in high-quality early education. He also writes the early education blog, Birth to Thrive Online, for Thrive by Five Washington.)

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