Wednesday, January 20, 2021
Jan. 20, 2021

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Local View: Early childhood learning closes disparity gap


Gov. Jay Inslee released his budget proposal for 2021-23 and it includes important investments in early education and child care –specifically our state’s preschool program, ECEAP. His continued commitment to early learning fits nicely with the package of diversity and equity initiatives he also rolled out at the beginning of December.

While police reform is a downstream strategy, early learning can be an incredibly effective and needed upstream strategy. That’s because inequities, between children of color and white children, already exist by the time children start kindergarten.

Washingtonians protested in the streets over the summer, in response to the shooting of George Floyd and many other African-Americans. Because of their calls for justice, states, cities, and counties changed course — passing significant police reform, reallocating funding to social services and mental health, and toppling the racist symbols of the old confederacy.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened and deepened the growing racial disparities seen throughout Washington.

We have a tremendous opportunity to close equity gaps for our children and we challenge our lawmakers to be forward-looking in their thinking and actions. We encourage them to move beyond the obvious levers of diversity and equity and to be courageous in their efforts. If we take a look at the latest numbers from our state’s kindergarten readiness assessment, the opportunity gap is already present.

In the 2019-2020 school year: 58 percent of white children were prepared for kindergarten in all six of the domains measured; only 44 percent of African-American children were prepared and 33 percent of Hispanic children. We know from the Education Trust report “Right Direction, Miles To Go” that kids in Washington who fall behind often don’t catch up. When assessing outcomes of Washington’s standardized tests, 60 percent of all fourth-graders were reading at grade level yet only 40 percent of black students.

You find similar education gaps in eighth grade and in high school. Students of color are also much less likely to graduate from high school: in 2019 1 in 9 students did not graduate, but it was much worse for students of color — 1 in 7 Black students, 3 in 20 Latino students, and 1 in 4 Native students did not graduate.

How do we disrupt the inequitable K-12 outcomes for students of color? By providing high quality early childhood education.

Here in Washington, our state’s preschool program, ECEAP, has shown to dramatically alter the trajectory of a child’s academic career. Not only has ECEAP proven to get children furthest from opportunity ready for school but the gains have lasting impact.

The Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that children who attended ECEAP had significantly higher math and reading scores in third, fourth, and fifth grades compared with children who did not attend the program. While the data shows that ECEAP gets all children ready for kindergarten, tribal, African American, English language learners, and Latino children make the most significant gains.

Locally, Educational Opportunities for Children and Families serves more than 1,350 ECEAP and Head Start children annually in Clark, Pacific and Cowlitz counties. Sixty-six percent of the families we serve are families of color, and we are finding that we have successfully closed the racial disparity gap in kindergarten readiness.

There is no silver bullet to close equity gaps and undo years of systemic racism. However, there are some forward-looking steps this Legislature can take that are politically popular, relatively inexpensive and proven to be effective. We hope that when the Legislature comes together it will consider all options to accelerate progress even in a tough budget climate — especially continuing to invest in programs like ECEAP that have been shown to help the children receive the extra boost they need to be successful in school and later in life.

Joel Ryan is executive director for the Washington State Association of Head Start and ECEAP. Rekah Strong is executive director of Educational Opportunities for Children and Families in Vancouver.