Investment in early education is key to solving K-12 problems | Commentary

Joel Ryan -
Joel Ryan
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The State Supreme Court ruled early this year that Washington is not adequately funding our public schools. As a result, a committee was established called the Joint Task Force on Education Funding to develop recommendations for how the state could meet the court’s requirements.

This task force has a difficult and complex job. They need to find more funding for education, better allocate dollars to school districts, and ensure that all kids are getting a quality education. But a real solution must move beyond just what is needed to fund “basic education” and start looking at what will achieve the type of educational outcomes our children need to be successful for the high skill jobs required of our economy. Solving our education crisis cannot be done without ensuring that all children in our state come to kindergarten ready to learn, and at the moment our children continue to enter school way behind.  A 2011 report found that more than half of the children arriving in kindergarten are not ready.

High-quality, early learning programs in study after study have been shown to be the single most cost-effective way to improve outcomes for children in K-12 and beyond. Investments in high-quality early learning reduce the need for costly school interventions such as special education and remedial services, while making it more likely children will graduate from high school and college.

The Department of Early Learning (DEL) estimates that there are more than 32,000 at-risk children eligible but unable enroll in our state’s ECEAP (Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program) program. Puget Sound ESD, which provides ECEAP and Head Start services to hundreds of at-risk children in South King County, has seen the number of families seeking assistance grow the last few years as a result of the recession. Sadly, many of the children they serve are homeless or are in the child welfare system.

While the task force is well intentioned, simply funding K-12 classrooms by itself will not buy the kind of results taxpayers expect and children need.  That’s why we are calling for the committee to include in its recommendations an expansion of our state’s well regarded pre-kindergarten program – ECEAP, along with additional funding for pregnant moms, babies and toddlers. All you need to do is look at the most recent results from the DEL ECEAP report to see how tax dollars are being put to use:

• Children Met and Exceeded Goals in Language and Literacy.  In literacy development, only 43 percent of children entering in the fall were assessed “at or above” expected age level.  By spring 2012, 95 percent of children were “at or above” age level.

• Children acquired the foundational mathematics skills they needed. In math skills, which often predicts a child’s success throughout their education, 58 percent of children moved from below age level in the fall to at or above age level in spring.

• Children Developed the Social-Emotional Skills to Sit, Pay Attention, Play Well With Others, and Learn.  Studies have shown that one of the key indicators of future success in school and work is the development of self control.  Sharing, cooperating, showing patience and handling frustration allow children to interact with peers and adults in a positive manner.  At the beginning of the year 24 percent of children showed “strength” in self control.  By the end of the year 42 percent showed “strength,” and only 3 percent showed “concerns.”

If we don’t want to waste taxpayer dollars, we must make sure that the children in the K-12 system are arriving healthy and ready to learn. A system in which thousands of at-risk children arrive at kindergarten months or years behind their middle-class peers in their cognitive and social-emotional development is a system that is both expensive and doomed to failure. Our state can’t afford it.

Joel Ryan is the executive director of the Washington State Association of Head Start and ECEAP.

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