Why Early Learning Matters in This Election

preschool_kidsEditor's Note: The following is an op-ed.

We all know we should care about elections, and we’ve heard that this year is especially important for education. This election is important for education at all levels, but some of the most affected students will be our state’s youngest — those younger than five.

The next governor and legislature will make big decisions about services that help our state’s littlest learners get ready for school and life. Programs like free preschool for low-income children and all-day kindergarten for all students are so impactful because 85 percent of a baby’s brain develops before age five — and most of it before age three. Rich learning environments during these years, whether in preschools, childcare centers or a neighbor’s back yard, can make a huge difference in a child’s life.

Crystal Garvin, mother of three, knows first-hand the importance of these programs. Her family has worked hard to succeed, but last year, she had to quit her job in her field because her wage was not enough to pay for childcare. Fortunately, her children are able to qualify for the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP), the state’s preschool program for low-income children, and they could attend preschool, despite the cost.

Research tells us that high-quality early learning is important for all children, but it has an even greater impact on low-income children who often face a number of risk factors and start kindergarten behind their peers. While it is possible for children to catch up to where they should be academically, it is hard.

In addition, it is much more cost effective to start at-risk children out on the right foot. In fact, full-day high-quality preschool programs can have a cost savings of $7 to $16 for every $1 invested. Children who participate in these programs are less likely to need special education services or to repeat grades. Later in life they are more likely to have higher incomes and less likely to commit crimes and need to rely on social services.

All-day kindergarten is another important early learning program that helps children get better prepared for first grade and beyond. It is especially important for children that are not in high-quality preschool and often start off kindergarten behind. All-day programs give them extra learning time to catch up to their peers.

In Washington, we’ve recognized how effective and economical these programs are. Current law says that by the 2017-18 school year, all children who qualify for ECEAP and want it must be able to participate. The same is true for all-day kindergarten. Unfortunately, right now our state is not on track to meet these requirements. In order to meet these goals, the state needs to rapidly increase funding for these programs.

This coming legislative session, lawmakers will have the duty of making sure we meet our promises to our kids. The elections will determine who the new governor is and the make-up of the legislature and both will determine how many children these programs will serve.

This post was co-written by Tracy Sherman and April Ritter. Tracy Sherman is a policy analyst at the League of Education Voters and a graduate of public schools in Oregon. April Ritter is a parent of five and a community organizer for the League of Education Voters.

The League of Education Voters Foundation (LEV) is a non-partisan, nonprofit organization made up of parents, students, and leaders who believe in a quality education from cradle to career. LEV is the only Washington-based organization working to improve public education from early learning through higher education. We shape the debate, build powerful coalitions and grow the grassroots to achieve meaningful reform and adequate resources for education.

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