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Originally published Friday, December 23, 2011 at 3:46 PM

Getting a running start on the Race to the Top

Washington state has made more progress than most states to improve education in preschools. A $60 million Race to the Top federal grant should be used to push even farther.

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QUALITY preschools are key to improving long-term academic achievement. Washington state's $60 million share of the Race to the Top federal grants will go a long way toward improving preschool programs across the state.

Until now, the state has been a loser in the Obama administration's education competition. But our state's focus on education for preschoolers garnered notice and much-needed funding.

The money should drive two important efforts: One is advancing day-care efforts beyond safety and care to the equally critical components of learning and child development.

The second is a healthy shift of attention and early-learning resources toward kids from low-income families and families learning to speak English. These kids are least likely to receive quality early learning.

One-third of the 75,000 kids entering public-school kindergarten last year were behind expected skill levels, according to a state-led pilot project. Kindergartners are assessed in four critical development areas: social/emotional, cognitive, physical and language/literacy.

Early-learning policymakers prudently agreed to reserve the bulk of the four-year grant for educational coaches and technical assistance to improve day care and preschools.

Advances in brain research point to the period between infancy and 5 years of age as the most crucial for brain development; the bulk of cognitive development and other neurological growth occurs in this period.

This state is ahead of the curve in early learning. We were the first state, and remain one of the few, to create an agency devoted to creating a pre-K system similar to the K-12 educational system. The end goal is broad access to early-learning programs, standards for curriculum and teacher quality. Washington has a system in place; now it can broaden access.

Supplanting federal money is the modus operandi of the state Legislature. Grant rules limit that kind of pea-shell game — and they should.

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