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Making a commitment to early learning

For years, we have seen articles on the front pages of Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, newspapers and other publications touting the amazing new research on babies and how their brains develop. The importance of the first five years of a child's life is now well understood.

But there remains a big gap between the information available to parents about how all this research helps them and what they can do to take advantage of it. And there is a big gap between public policy regarding parent education and the importance of quality early learning opportunities for children when their parents need to go to work or school.

This legislative session is a great opportunity to strengthen our public policies and the funding supporting parents and child care. It's time to make our state a national leader in helping parents and children.

Exciting times for early learning

These are exciting times for everyone who cares about helping parents to make great choices for their children. Just last session, the legislature established a new Department of Early Learning. Gov. Chris Gregoire has hired an experienced and dynamic leader, Jone Bosworth, to be the first director of our new Department of Early Learning. In addition, the legislature created a new private-public partnership in response to strong interest in supporting early learning from the private sector -- the Boeing Company, the Gates Foundation, the Talaris Research Institute and many others. As a result, the Thrive By Five private-public partnership for early learning was launched this summer, and scored a major coup by bringing Dr. Graciela Italiano-Thomas to Washington to serve as the partnership's first CEO.

Clearly, we are turning a critical corner. We've long known that fewer than half of Washington's children enter kindergarten ready to learn. We've also long known that research on brain development shows children are born learning and can rapidly build skills for future success, if given the opportunity. But now we are turning from knowledge to action, from seeing opportunities to seizing them.

Five big ideas

I and my colleagues on the Washington Early Learning Council outlined five "big ideas" to Washington Learns which should guide our actions as we move forward.
  • Support parents as their child's first and best teacher. Government should not try to be a parent, but should help parents by providing voluntary tools and resources to enhance early learning. We should also work with Thrive by Five to provide information on research-based strategies for parents to address common early childhood problems -- like temper tantrums or sleeping issues. Visit www.talaris.org to view current research available from the Talaris Institute.
  • Refocus and change public perceptions about education for young children through:
    1) public education on the importance of those first five years, and
    2) creation of a voluntary five-star rating system for child-care providers that will give parents information on the quality of care available in their community, help them make good childcare choices and offer incentives for childcare providers to aim for higher quality.
  • Support early educator professional development, compensation, and competency. Providing ongoing training opportunities and reasonable pay and benefits will result in a more stable workforce, and higher-quality early learning teachers.
  • Build community-level capacity to support the early learning years. Building strong local private-public partnerships across Washington is essential to improving early learning and capitalizing on the benefits offered by the statewide Thrive By Five partnership (http://www.thrivebyfivewa.org/).
  • Provide fair, sufficient, and equitable funding for early education. Every dollar invested in high-quality early learning generates an average return of eight dollars in benefits. These investments will determine how much we achieve for parents and children in the years ahead.
The road ahead

There is no question that we are turning the corner on early learning in our state. The only question now is how far we will go, and the answer to that question is in our hands.

Our Legislature will soon make key decisions on early learning funding and policies. I strongly urge readers of ParentMap -- and all parents -- to contact their local state legislators (www.leg.wa.gov/legislature) and speak out for the children who are too young to speak for themselves.

Tell your legislators to make early learning and improved child care the priorities they need to be. Together we can give children the early learning foundation they need to thrive in school and life.

State Rep. Ruth Kagi, D-Lake Forest Park, represents the 32nd District in the House of Representatives and is Chair of the Children and Family Services Committee. Kagi was the lead sponsor of the state laws that created the Washington State Department of Early Learning and Washington Early Learning Council.

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