Investment in early learning pays big dividends

The OlympianNovember 17, 2013 

Senator Patty Murray stands with students during a visit on April 4, 2002 to Madison Elementary School's Welcome Room for homeless students. From left are second-grader Jared Leveter, 8, third-grader Karyssa Wilkinson, 9, and third-grader Grant Dutcher, 9. (Tony Overman/The Olympian)

TONY OVERMAN

The early learning deficit in this country is disturbing. It reveals a sharp divide of kindergarten-age children who are already reading, compared with some who can’t write their own names.

It’s well-documented that children who can’t count to 20, or read simple words before they enter kindergarten are likely to fall behind their peers in the classroom and never catch up.

Far too often, it is the children in poverty-stricken families who start school at a learning disadvantage, sharpening the line between the haves and the have-nots in America.

There is so much room for improvement in the area of early childhood learning. A recent survey of kindergarten teachers in Thurston County revealed that nearly one out of every four students comes to school not prepared to learn due to a variety of factors, including poor social skills, unhealthy nutrition and lack of intellectual nurturing.

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and a former preschool teacher, understands the importance of early childhood learning. That’s why she and 10 other lawmakers have introduced the Strong Start for America’s Children Act, an attempt to bolster access to early learning programs, including free pre-school for all 3 - and 4-year-olds from families with low and moderate incomes.

It’s an ambitious program with a hefty price tag — $34 billion in the first five years. In these tough times of budget wrangling in Congress, some might say the bill is dead on arrival.

Well, it shouldn’t be. There is no greater investment this nation can make than an investment in its young children.

It’s an investment that will save money in the long run. For every $1 spent on top-notch early education programs, $7 is saved through the reduced need for special education and remedial services, higher graduation rates and reduced costs for health care, social services, crime and delinquency.

The comprehensive bill meshes well with President Barack Obama’s vow during his State of the Union address in February to reduce early learning deficits in this country.

The bill builds off successful programs, including the federally funded Head Start program for low-income families, and the state’s Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program for families with incomes up to 110 percent of the federal poverty level.

To qualify for funding, states would be required to set high-quality standards for preschools, and fully fund kindergarten, something not yet achieved in this state. Murray’s bill would keep state legislators motivated to do so.

It would take a bachelor’s degree, not just an associate degree, to teach pre-school.

The bill also speaks to the need for well-educated preschool teachers earning wages comparable to their K-12 peers. A 2012 survey by the state Department of Early Learning and Washington State University found the average annual salary of a child care center teacher was $23,580, compared with $52,227 for a K-12 teacher.

Remember, pre-school teachers are not baby sitters. To succeed, they must be actively engaged with the children under their care and tutelage, recognizing the fact that children are born learning.

The Strong Start for America’s Children Act deserves support. Congress should embrace the act for the sake of the children, their families and their future.

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