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Originally published Tuesday, January 19, 2010 at 5:17 PM

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Early start on early learning

More than half of the children in Washington state start kindergarten academically behind. Promising proposals on early learning are worthy of serious consideration by the state Legislature.

The state Legislature should pay serious attention to several promising proposals to broaden and enhance preschools.

In regulatory terms, early learning programs represent a vast no man's land with little in the way of standards or accountability. Teachers do not undergo background checks. While the state oversees about 7,600 licensed child-care facilities serving 175,000 children, other programs — including those run in homes — operate for less than four hours a day do not need licenses.

Changing this offers a promising start for lawmakers intent on addressing preschool education. A flurry of bills in the state House and Senate promise to move efforts beyond the planning stage.

One bill is offered at the behest of Gov. Chris Gregoire. It proposes the "All Start" program to bring all preschool programs under standards set by the state Department of Early Learning. It would also extend state help for preschool tuition beyond just the poorest children.

One question raised by the attention to early learning is whether the state's definition of basic education should be broadened to include early learning. Lawmakers would then operate under the same state constitutional imperative for funding early learning as they do for the K-12 system. This isn't a step to be taken lightly.

But it is good to see lawmakers placing early learning high on the education priority list.

More than half of Washington's children currently start kindergarten academically behind. The price paid for not addressing this problem is extensive remedial work and a persistently high dropout rate.

The governor's plan to expand preschool beyond the poorest children offers a challenge to lawmakers being asked to fund an expansion as they make cuts to balance the budget. Staying true to priorities will be only part of the solution. None of the early learning bills include a fiscal note, but over time the funding, and its sources, must be made known.

A good start toward providing the framework for quality early learning is happening in the Legislature.

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