Senate Democrats propose preschool expansion

In Washington state, some 50,000 children could potentially qualify for taxpayer-paid preschool



WASHINGTON — Staking a major investment in early-childhood education — and in defiance of federal austerity — a group of lawmakers is proposing to offer free preschool to all 3- and 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families.

The bill, being introduced Wednesday, is an ambitious follow-up to President Obama’s pledge during his February State of the Union address to narrow early learning deficits, where some children enter kindergarten already reading and others unable to write their names.

The Strong Start for America’s Children Act calls for spending $34 billion in the first five years alone. Among other things, the money would pay for voluntary preschool for kids from households with up to twice the poverty level ($47,100 for a family of four), raise education requirements for preschool teachers and help boost their pay to parity with K-12 teachers.

In Washington state, some 50,000 children could potentially qualify for taxpayer-paid preschool, based on poverty estimates and census data. Currently, 20 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds and 9 percent of the 3-year-olds receive free pre-K education, either through the federally funded Head Start program for low-income families or the state-funded Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program, open to families with incomes up to 110 percent of the poverty level.

In 2012, the two programs cost an average of $6,800 per student.

Joel Ryan, executive director of Washington State Association of Head Start & ECEAP, said the legislation was notable for its scope. Rather than working with fixed block grants, states would get matching funds from the federal government to cover the cost of education for all eligible children. States also would be encouraged to expand preschool to kids from higher-income households.

“This is a pretty big deal,” Ryan said. “And it’s a very good thing.”

Studies have repeatedly found correlation between early-childhood education and later payoffs, both personal and societal, including higher wages and academic achievements and reduced costs for health-care and social services.

But Washington state does not provide free all-day school for even kindergartners. As recently as last fall, the state paid for all-day kindergarten for just 22 percent of students. The share today is 44 percent, thanks to a $50 million infusion from the Legislature.

The bill makes state-funded kindergarten a condition for applying for preschool grants.

The legislation is sponsored by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and co-sponsored by Sen. Patty Murray, D. Wash., and eight other Senate Democrats. Two House members, including Republican Richard Hanna, of New York, are also supporting it.

Early learning is a signature issue for Murray, a former preschool teacher. Earlier this year, she introduced the Ready to Learn Act with similar provisions for preschool funding as the latest legislation.

Murray is co-chairing a budget conference committee with Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. A key part of their task is to agree on spending levels for the remainder of the 2014 fiscal year, which ends next Sept. 30. They also are seeking mutually acceptable alternatives to the sequestration, arbitrary budget cuts that are split between defense and nondefense discretionary programs.

Already this academic year, the sequestration has bumped 57,000 kids out of Head Start programs across the country, including 750 children in Washington.

Head Start programs and preschools funded by the state operate out of public schools, churches, child-development centers and other sites.

The proposed legislation would require states to set high-quality standards for preschools, aligned with K-12 academic standards. It also requires preschool teachers to hold bachelor’s degrees.