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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Gregoire proposes preschool licensing

She also wants state to subsidize learning for low-income kids

OLYMPIA – Washington state should help low-income residents get their children into the preschool of their choice, but the state should also establish standards for facilities that help prepare 3- and 4-year-olds for kindergarten, Gov. Chris Gregoire said Monday.

It also must have a stronger system to force improvements on failing K-12 schools, in part to have a chance to qualify for hundreds of millions of dollars in the federal Race to the Top program, she said.

Gregoire, Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn and Bette Hyde, director of the state’s Early Learning Department, were among a group calling for changes in state education policies and programs in preschool and K-12 education.

For preschoolers, Gregoire proposes the “All Start” program, which she said would open up preschool to low-income families by providing subsidies for those with incomes below twice the poverty level. The youngsters would have to be enrolled in certified preschools, which means the state would have to establish standards and develop a certification process.

“We have no standards for preschools. Preschool teachers are not required to undergo background checks,” Gregoire said.

Hyde said the goal is to provide “quality preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds” in the face of evidence that some 85 percent of brain development occurs by age 5.

The state currently has a preschool program for low-income families called the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program. Gregoire’s proposal would allow parents who can afford to pay for preschool to enroll their children in ECEAP, too. But it would also provide assistance to low-income families to put their children in private preschools run by churches, nonprofit organizations or colleges.

Gregoire and Hyde said they believed capacity exists in preschools to absorb the children from All Start, but conceded the state doesn’t really know how many preschool programs exist in Washington. Unlike day care centers, which are licensed by the state, preschool programs need not be. Also Monday, Gregoire announced plans to help the state qualify for federal “Race to the Top” money, including a process for the state to intervene in failing schools without directly taking the facility over. Her education program also calls for a type of merit pay for teachers that would be based on adding innovative programs, and using better data to determine the success of students in classrooms.

Mary Jean Ryan, chairwoman of the State Board of Education, later told a Senate committee that lacking the authority to take over low-performing schools is a problem for qualifying for that new federal grant program. So is the state’s lack of charter schools and a weak evaluation system for teachers and principals.

“We are not proposing a state takeover of schools,” Ryan said. Instead, the state would have authority to force school districts to come up with a plan to improve such schools, and implement it.

There’s no guarantee the state will qualify for as much as $250 million in federal money under Race to the Top if the Legislature approves the bill. Only between 15 and 17 states are expected to win the competition for federal money.

“I am confident that if the state does not pass it, we will not qualify,” Gregoire said.