The idea of universal preschool and early learning programs is one that has room for debate.
Proponents say such initiatives provide a strong foundation for students’ future educational progress; critics say such programs don’t yield results that make the investment worthwhile. Either way, it is worth noting that Washington’s preschool program for low-income families received kudos last week from the Learning Policy Institute, which held up this state and three others as examples for others to follow.
Washington’s Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program, founded in 1985, was highlighted in part because of its holistic approach to learning. The system includes not only educational programs, but also hooks up families with services such as health care, vision screenings, and dental screenings, serving 3- and 4-year-olds whose families earn no more than 110 percent of the federal poverty level. That helps explain why, according to the Learning Policy Institute, the program costs about $7,300 per student per year — roughly $2,500 higher than the national average for a half-day of preschool.
Therein lies the debate. Throughout the country, states are moving ever closer to universal preschool, and 32 of them boosted funding for the 2015-16 school year. Yet critics remain, particularly among those who view such programs as an example of ineffective spending and governmental overreach.
In truth, early learning programs should be viewed as an investment that saves money in the long run. For example, The Daily Signal — the news arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation — ran a story in 2013 professing to show how long-established preschool programs in Oklahoma and Georgia have been fruitless. Among the complaints: Georgia’s program was in place for 13 years before fourth-grade reading scores caught up with the national average. This is a self-defeating argument, the point being that Georgia’s test scores did, indeed, catch up to the national average. The alternative is to have a generation of students lagging behind their peers across the nation.
In 2013, the Foundation for Child Development found that long-established large-scale preschool programs provide returns that “range from three to seven dollars saved for every dollar spent.” The private advocacy group also reported, “The foundations of brain architecture, and subsequent lifelong developmental potential, are laid down in a child’s early years through a process that is exquisitely sensitive to external influence.” Numerous studies have confirmed this notion that early learning pays lifelong dividends.
Washington’s Legislature has made strong strides in recent years to support education, particularly early learning. There has been funding for all-day kindergarten throughout the state, and efforts to reduce class sizes for grades K-3. While lawmakers have been derelict in fully funding K-12 education, they have rightly focused efforts upon the youngest learners, and those efforts have included funneling more money toward early child care.
Eventually, lawmakers would be wise to expand the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program. There are plans to double enrollment in the system by 2020, but those plans could be scuttled by a budget that demands attention to other areas — especially K-12 education. Finding the proper balance will be difficult, yet early childhood education should be viewed as an investment that saves money down the road. On that, there really should be no debate.