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State puts high priority on early learning

Published on: January 01, 2006

Early learning in Washington state
is about to advance a few rungs, if a policy initiated by Gov.
Christine Gregoire pans out.

In an education summit held last June, Gregoire spelled out plans for
Washington Learns, an 18-month education study that will examine the
state's system, K-12. The Washington Early Learning Council -- created by the state Legislature earlier this year -- will oversee early learning issues for the Washington Learns project.

The efforts of Gregoire and organizers on behalf of early learning are
welcome news for Washington families. It means the state is paying
attention to child development experts who pretty unanimously contend
that what happens in the beginning of a child's life matters.

"The first months and years are critical opportunities, not just for
learning, but for helping every child have the kind of positive
attachments that make life-long differences in citizenship and the
ability to care about other people," the Early Learning Council asserts
in a recent report.

One of the Council's chief directives is the creation of a Quality
Rating and Improvement System (QRIS), designed to upgrade the quality
of child care in the state. The rating system recommendations were
detailed in a state House Bill passed last April; the Early Learning
Council drafted its preliminary recommendations seven months after
that. The Legislature hopes to have a pilot program in place by the end
of March.

Goals of the system, outlined in the Council's preliminary draft,
include raising children's school readiness; providing families with
access to information about the quality of early learning and
school-age programs; and improving accountability and financing of the
early learning and care system in the state.

A significant facet of the QRIS includes what planners call "Tiered
Reimbursement." This is a system that would grant state-subsidized
child care providers more compensation for higher quality care. "It's a
way to reward and incentivize programs," says Nina Auerbach, CEO of
Child Care Resources. Ten states already have rating systems in place;
many of them include a tiered reimbursement piece for reaching certain
levels of quality, she notes.

Another key component of the plan details public-private partnerships
between Washington state and businesses, community leaders and
philanthropic organizations. Businesses in the state already support
early learning and are "poised to do more," according to the Early
Learning Council. The goal is to establish a "Partnership Fund" to
support high quality early learning services and support for families,
teachers, providers and communities.

Organizations and business need to think long-term, says Karen Tvedt,
executive director of the Early Learning Council. "There's research now
that says if you're thinking about investing, an early learning
investment is among the best you can make." Gains in child care
programs will show up later -- through improvements in the criminal
justice system, reduced school drop out rates, reduced pregnancy rates,
and in the state's economic strength, Tvedt says.

How will the Quality Rating and Improvement System work? For starters,
the program will be voluntary. Planners feel most child care providers
will want to participate, once the word's out that a rating system's in
place. "Hopefully, from a business perspective, it will become critical
to for programs to take part," Auerbach says. Offering financial
incentives (tiered reimbursement) will also promote involvement.

The system, structured for licensed child care providers in homes or
centers as well as the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program
and Head Start, consists of five levels, with level one the lowest and
level five the highest. Each level corresponds with strategies child
care providers can implement to improve the quality of their centers.
Levels progress toward accreditation, with level five representing
accreditation standards.

Categories, according to the current plan, include teacher and director
qualifications, curriculum and learning environment, management
practices, quality improvement and program assessment, and parent and
community partnership. Assessments and ratings will be based upon
classroom observations.

People are comfortable with points and ratings systems, Auerbach notes.
"Think of it as the way we view a Good Housekeeping Seal or a four-star
hotel. It's a way to compare services -- and a tool to help parents
understand the quality of care available."

Linda Morgan writes frequently on education issues for ParentMap.

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