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Making a commitment to early learning

Published on: January 01, 2007

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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