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Originally published November 6, 2013 at 5:07 PM | Page modified November 12, 2013 at 3:15 PM

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Corrected version

Editorial: Invest in early learning

Washington state lags the nation in enrolling 3- and 4-year-olds into quality early learning programs.

Seattle Times Editorial

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WASHINGTON state has done a good job building a quality early learning system based on high standards.

We know what works in preparing 3- and 4-year-olds for kindergarten. The trouble is there is not enough space for all of the students who qualify for state-subsidized early learning.

Just three out of 10 Washington children, aged 3 and 4, are enrolled in good early learning programs — one of the widest early education gaps in the nation, according to the Kids Count Data Book, an annual look at child well-being by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

When children are denied an early educational start, academic disparities are created. Of Washington’s third-graders, 27 percent failed to meet reading standards last year. One in three Pacific Islander third-graders did not meet standards in reading last year. Less than half of African American, Latino and Native American children were proficient in reading.

The solution is better investing of public tax dollars in what neuroscience says has worked. Child development research has overwhelmingly proved early learning’s power to help children start out on the right academic track and stay there throughout their K-12 years and into colleges or careers.

Investments in early learning save money in other areas. High-quality pre-kindergarten saves public school districts about $3,700 per child during the K-12 years. Add $1,000 in savings from money that did not need to be spent on health care, drug prevention, child protection and juvenile justice.

Greater access to early learning starts with adding more space in existing programs. The state Legislature made a down payment last session by adding $22 million to the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program, the state’s equivalent of the federal Head Start program. The money was used to add 1,700 additional slots in ECEAP.

Lawmakers also set a 2018 deadline for expanding the state program to 19,682 slots to be used by preschoolers from very low-income families.

The expansion will thin ECEAP’s 2,467-person waitlist. Legislators must then turn to a longer-term problem about how to accommodate the more than 32,000 3- and 4-year-olds who qualify for ECEAP and Head Start, but are not enrolled in either program.

Extending access to those children should be helped by state Reps. Ruth Kagi, D-Shoreline, and Ross Hunter, D-Bellevue, who want to integrate day-care centers, preschools and other state-supported early learning efforts into a cohesive system easily navigable by families.

The never-ending search for resources should include the Obama administration’s new initiative targeting grants to states looking to broaden early learning efforts to include home visits and improved day care.

Information in this article, originally published Sept. 6, 2013, was corrected Sept. 12, 2013. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the number of preschool slots that Washington state wants to expand to by 2018. That number is 19,682, not 2,400.

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