May 22, 2009 in Opinion

Our View: Early-learning veto hurts neediest kids the most

 

It’s one thing to eliminate a proposed item because the budget needs cutting, but that’s not the reason Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire gave for her surprising veto of the early learning portion of the overall school reform bill.

As part of an extensive revamping of “basic education,” the Legislature passed a bill that included preschool for at-risk 3- and 4-year-olds. The governor excised that portion because she wants early learning opportunities for all students, and she has vowed to pursue that next year. But budgetary challenges won’t subside by then and adopting universal preschool will be even more expensive. So why not start now with low-income students who would stand to gain the most?

Gregoire herself stated the rationale clearly when she urged the Legislature to push for early learning in 2006:

“The research is in, and there is no doubt. Ninety percent of human brain development happens in the first five years of life. Brain development research shows that the experiences of our youngest children establish the capacity for life-long learning. Researchers now believe that a large share of the gap in academic achievement could be closed if all children had better early learning experiences. And, the later in life we attempt to repair deficits, the costlier it becomes.”

Exactly, and starting with the neediest children makes sense. Delaying everything for a year does not.

Any plan to close the achievement gap must begin with early learning. For instance, 53.6 percent of African-American males graduated on time with their class in 2005-’06. Low-income students are more likely to land in special education classes and be labeled with emotional and learning disorders. Part of the reason is that they lack access to high-quality preschools, so that by the time they enter kindergarten they are at a disadvantage with their more fortunate peers. It’s a deficit that many students can never make up.

The consequences for society are significant, because these students are more likely to drop out and be unemployed and more likely to commit crimes. Research shows a savings of $3 to $9 for every dollar spent on early education.

Certainly it would be better if all children had the opportunity to attend good preschools, but the $1 billion-a-year price tag is not affordable at this time. The state needs to shift its budget priorities and phase this in over many years, just as it plans to do with other basic education reforms. The $170 million Gregoire axed would have been the logical beginning. The governor’s veto is like eliminating Basic Health, because it doesn’t cover all children.

It’s better to help the neediest children now.


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