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THE value of early learning is undeniable. Preparing young children for school starts them off on the right track and saves on costly remediation.

Washington state, as well Oklahoma, Georgia and a few other states, have caught onto this and have dramatically expanded access to quality preschool programs.

Now it is up to Congress to pass the Strong Start for America’s Children Act.

Bills in the U.S. House and Senate call for full-day prekindergarten for 4-year-olds and strong early learning opportunities in day care for infants and toddlers.

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The Senate version is the better bill. It authorizes more discretionary funding than the House for programs for infants and toddlers. The Senate bill is also better informed by the influence of U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, a former preschool teacher. The Washington Democrat is also chair of the powerful Senate budget committee, a point worth noting since needed federal and state investments in early learning are expected to total in the billions over the next decade.

Law enforcement leaders, including several from Washington, have become the most vocal supporters of early learning. They note its role as a key strategy in reducing crime and lowering juvenile justice costs.

Consider this: Washington state taxpayers spend more than $800 million a year on corrections, including state prisons and parole programs. Other states show similar outsized spending on crime when compared with early education.

Moreover, a federal boost to early learning would improve access to kindergarten. Under the Senate bill, states vying for federal funding to pay for early learning would have to demonstrate how their efforts would also increase the number of children enrolled in full-day kindergarten. The goal is to ensure that there isn’t a drop-off in classroom time after kids attend full-time pre-K programs.

Right now, many states, including Washington, pay for just half a day of kindergarten. Parents pay tuition to access the other half of the day, or choose to enroll their children in only half-day programs.

Congress has been stalled for more than two years over the next iteration of the No Child Left Behind federal education law. But the early learning bills have momentum, including strong support in states and in both political chambers in Congress. Time to pass a federal early learning plan.

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