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Originally published June 6, 2013 at 4:05 PM | Page modified June 6, 2013 at 4:37 PM

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Legislature shouldn’t scrimp on investment in early learning

Support state investments in early learning and pre-K education. The Washington Legislature saves money later with prudent investments now.

Times editorial columnist

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The Washington State Legislature engages in a delusional false economy when it scrimps on money for early-learning programs.

Pinching pennies on school readiness for pre-K children and families wastes vast sums of money later in elementary school and beyond. Preparation is a lot less expensive than remediation.

The Legislature took some noteworthy steps during the regular session to address the functional issues surrounding child-care-funding formulas, streamlining access and coordinating state and federal programs.

State Sens. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, and state Rep. Ruth Kagi, D-Lake Forest Park, were among the leading advocates and key players.

Legislation created a couple of task forces — excuse me, technical working groups — to analyze and promote more bureaucratic changes. Expect good thoughtful recommendations.

But special session budget discussions are looking at imprudent reductions in proposed new spending on early learning. On Wednesday, House Democrats trimmed a $40 million expansion of Washington’s Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program to $30.6 million. The Senate budget is at $22 million.

For child care programs, which seek to provide early-learning instruction via licensed day-care facilities, the House Democrats went from $31 million to $15 million. The Senate is at zero new dollars, and even rolled back enrollment in the face of demonstrable need.

I think about state spending on early learning as a variation on the Skagit River bridge on Interstate 5. Bridges and education help get people to work. Both get people from here to there. Failure to provide and maintain both has consequences.

Money spent on pre-K education is a basic infrastructure investment, a cost of doing business.

As Kagi notes, “When we provide child care, moms can get to work.” The availability of child care with an educational element — not just eight to 10 hours of baby-sitting — helps get children ready to learn and eventually to participate in a 21st-century economy.

Lawmakers passed Senate Bill 5595 to have the state Department of Early Learning and the Department of Social and Health Services create a more accessible, user-friendly child-care program. Reform recommendations are due by the end of the year.

The regular session also produced three other measures.

• Senate Bill 5809 clarifies some accounting issues for the Home Visiting Services Account, and seeks to point the program toward the most vulnerable families and help them with parenting skills and support.

• House Bill 1723 promotes the mindset and planning to create “an integrated early-learning continuum from birth to age five.” The goal is to reinforce and blend services and funding, and clarify rules. For example, allow and encourage home visits by kindergarten teachers early in the school year. Recommendations will come from a legislative panel.

• House Bill 1968 is a pragmatic directive to adopt licensing provisions that would allow schools to be used after school hours by child-care providers. Current fire and safety rules put the uses at odds.

These efforts sustain early-learning programs that pay dividends. Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child notes that three of the most rigorous long-term studies found a range of returns between $4 and $9 for every dollar invested in early-learning programs for low-income children.

The public treasury saves money on reduced special education, welfare and crime costs, and collects more from employable adults.

Spending on early learning and pre-K education is affordable. Even in lean times, the state can find the money for this basic investment.

The alternative is pretty grim, and more expensive.

Lance Dickie's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is ldickie@seattletimes.com


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