He didn’t wrap them in festive paper and affix glittery bows, but Uncle Sam did deliver a couple of huge gifts to Washington state this holiday season.
First out of the sack was $60 million to help the state expand its efforts to prepare more children for kindergarten. Washington was one of nine states to submit winning early learning applications.
The state plans to use the money to expand a quality rating system for preschools, to measure the readiness of kids for kindergarten, and to finance scholarships for child care workers who want to pursue college degrees, according to an Associated Press article.
Investing in early learning is smart, because it eventually pays for itself. Many studies have shown that children who show up at kindergarten behind their peers aren’t likely to ever catch up. Society as a whole pays the price with fewer productive citizens and more government spending on crime and punishment.
The keys are giving the parents of underprivileged children high-quality preschool options and treating early learning as an essential long-term commitment. It has to be much more than day care, and the teachers must be more than baby sitters.
Washington already has a 10-year plan to expand early learning, which gave it a leg up on competitors for federal money. The award softens the blow from failing twice to win “Race to the Top” education grants.
The second gift was a nearly $17 million performance bonus for meeting and exceeding federal targets for enrolling children in health care programs. The Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2009 includes incentives for states to make it easier to enroll children in Medicaid and CHIP plans.
Washington was one of 23 states to get a bonus by meeting at least five of eight criteria designed to cut red tape and increase the participation rate of qualifying families. Plus, the state nabbed extra cash by exceeding the enrollment benchmark by at least 10 percent. It is one of only a handful of states that have won a bonus all three years.
However, this bonus was more of a relief than a windfall, because the money had already been factored into the state’s health care budget. That was a savvy budgeting move because it makes it more difficult to divert the money elsewhere.
The state has long been a national leader in access to health care for children and, with looming budget cuts to Basic Health and possible cuts to Apple Health for Kids, the federal bonus was vital.
What’s remarkable is that during a time of deep economic troubles, the nation has been able to extend early learning opportunities and health coverage to a higher percentage of children.
Those efforts reflect commendable values, which the state of Washington has worked hard to uphold.