Gregoire celebrates windfall for early learning

State wins $60M to get more high-needs kids ready for kindergarten

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SEATTLE — Gov. Chris Gregoire was hungry for some good news when a call came in from the other Washington.

She sounded almost giddy Friday relaying the news that Washington state has won $60 million from the federal government to expand its efforts to help children get better prepared for kindergarten.

“It’s just a grand day for our little learners and for the people of our state,” the governor said.

Washington is one of nine states to win a share of more than $500 million in new federal dollars for early learning initiatives. The other winners — chosen from 37 applicants — are California, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio and Rhode Island.

The goal of the competition is to get more high-needs children from birth to age 5 ready for kindergarten.

Washington state officials plan to use the money to expand two programs. One measures how ready kids are for kindergarten. The other works to improve preschools through a quality rating system. Some of the money will also pay for scholarships to send child care workers to college.

“We’ve been working hard, but we ran aground recently. We have everything in place but no money to do it,” Gregoire said.

With the federal dollars and a close partnership with nonprofit organizations Thrive by Five Washington and the Bill & Melinda Gates

Foundation, plus the University of Washington, the governor believes Washington has everything it needs now to set an example for the rest of the country.

She brought a couple of bottles of sparkling cider over to the Department of Early Learning on Friday and celebrated with the staff and Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn.

Gregoire said one thing is clear to everyone involved in education: “If we can get these little people ready for kindergarten, we will give them a rocket boost. … Failing in that regard, it’s an uphill battle.”

Sen. Patty Murray, who has encouraged the Obama administration to put more money into preschool education, couldn’t agree more.

“As a former preschool teacher, I’ve seen first-hand how investments in early learning programs pay off for our children. And I know that students who have access to high-quality early childhood education are more prepared for elementary school and have a better shot at getting their educational career started on the right track,” the Washington Democrat said in a written statement.

Murray spoke to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in early May to push him to use a significant amount of Race to the Top dollars for early learning. Duncan announced the $500 million Early Learning Challenge later that month.

Earlier this month, Murray called Duncan to personally lay out the strengths of Washington state’s application, her office said.

Washington won no money in the earlier rounds of Race to the Top, which was focused on K-12 education.

But the state failed to pass a key benchmark the federal government used in determining the winners of those competitions. Washington does not allow charter public schools; for the most part, the winners all do.

This time, Washington didn’t have trouble qualifying for the federal money, but that doesn’t mean the competition wasn’t tough. Thirty-five states and the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico entered the competition.

Washington probably gained points for the quality and creativity of its early learning initiatives but expected to lose points for the reach and longevity of those programs, Bette Hyde, director of the Washington Department of Early Learning, said when the application was submitted.

“This plan is what we want to do, and whether we get the money or not, we’re doing this,” she said.

The state’s focus on early learning is one of the only direct results of Gov. Chris Gregoire’s Washington Learns initiative in 2005. The initiative led to the establishment of the Department of Early Learning in 2006, which has received help from Thrive by Five Washington and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

About 70 percent of the federal dollars are expected to be invested in Washington’s preschool “quality rating and improvement system” for training and coaching of child care providers, and to do the rating and build the database for child care and preschool programs across the state. Preschools and child care programs can earn a rating of 1 to 5 under the system.

The programs rated so far serve 800 children, but the goal is to rate programs that serve more than 70,000 by 2015, with a focus on children living in poverty.

Washington’s more-than-1,200-page proposal was based on an existing 10-year plan for early learning. The federal dollars would help the state move faster toward its goals, Hyde said.

In her cover letter for the application, Gregoire emphasized that Washington is already working toward a great early learning system, despite the economy.

“We are building a world-class early learning system because it is the right thing to do and it is the smart thing to do,” she wrote.

Hyde believes early learning programs will help Washington children make progress on the school achievement gap among those of different races and economic backgrounds.

“If children start behind, they very likely stay behind,” she said.