State takes big steps toward lasting early education reforms | Guest op

Washington has been a leader in early learning for years. The Department of Early Learning provides excellent preschool for many low-income children through the Early Learning Childhood Assistance Program. And the statewide Early Learning Advisory Council has also contributed greatly to the state’s success in this policy area.

Studies overwhelmingly show that the earliest years of a child’s life are some of the most important in their development. A high quality preschool or Head Start class can make all the difference in the world for a child’s educational success. And there are long lasting benefits to society as well. Research shows that children who are enrolled in top quality early education programs are less likely to fail grades, need special education services or become involved in the criminal justice system.

The Legislature passed a number of bills this session to lay the groundwork for the adoption of a comprehensive blueprint for future expansion of early learning programs and services.

Here are the steps we are taking to get there:

• Recognizing parents are their children’s first and most important teachers, HB 2867 starts the continuum by asking the Department of Early Learning to develop a birth- to-age three plan to provide education and a range of support to parents and caregivers. Science has proven this time period is especially crucial to development.

• Focusing on the details, SB 6759 takes a direct look at all of the questions relating to what an early learning program should look like such as performance measures, transportation, and teacher qualifications.

• Part of the good news is that early learning can give children with low income or disabilities a fair shot at success. HB 2731 adopts an approach to establishing an early learning program for preschool children as an entitlement when fully implemented by 2018. Children who have the greatest need will have access to the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program.

• Supporting a strong transition from preschool to grades K–three, HB 2776 establishes the end goal of reducing class size to 17 students in grades K–three by 2018 — because smaller classes equal better learning.

Combined, these bills fundamentally will change how we view education in this state and dramatically increase the odds that our children will be ready to learn in order to be successful in life.

There are skeptics who believe expanding early learning will be too costly. But as the gap widens between the haves and have-nots, doing nothing will cost us much more down the road. Now is the time to raise the bar on early learning. Children in this state deserve nothing less, and their future is in our hands.

Sen. Claudia Kauffman, D-Kent, is vice chair of the Senate Early Learning & K-12 Education Committee. Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, is chair of the Senate Early Learning & K-12 Education Committee.

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