Washington state needs high quality preschool, excellent K-12 schools and a well funded higher education system. All three, not one of the above.

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Research shows that the benefits of early childhood education are crystal clear.

Low-income students who participate in Washington’s state-supported early learning program enter kindergarten as ready to learn as their more affluent classmates. The benefits continue at least through elementary school, according to state data.

With such a positive impact, it’s hard to understand why the Legislature doesn’t work harder to find the money to pay for the state early learning programs for low-income children. Those programs are in line for cuts in the Senate budget proposal, although the Children’s Alliance and other advocacy groups say neither current budget plan does enough for early learning and child care for low-income families.

The state of Washington is under a Supreme Court order to fully fund public schools and improve educational outcomes. One thing guaranteed to make a difference for kids — even though it’s not part of the 2012 McCleary decision — is high-quality early learning. Quality preschool is not cheap, but the money is well spent. Lawmakers who want a positive education outcome need to take a closer look at the early learning budget.

What else do we know about the benefits of early learning? Those who have the benefit of quality preschool do better on third-, fourth- and fifth-grade statewide tests than low-income classmates who did not have the same early learning experience. Early learning also makes a difference in K-12 attendance, which research shows is essential to improving graduation rates.

About 23,000 eligible 3- through 5-year-old Washington children should be in the state’s Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program for kids from low-income families. But they are not getting the preschool academic training they should because the Legislature has not allocated enough money to pay for it. Lawmakers have made progress on funding this program and both the Senate and House budget proposals would add more than a thousand children to the program. They just need to dig deeper and make this sure-bet investment. It’s essential for these children and for the economic vitality of Washington state.

Another program, Working Connections, provides child care subsidies for parents with slightly more income, but is just as important.

The Senate budget proposal for the next biennium cuts the Working Connections program to make way for more spending on K-12. Education funding should not be an “either or” proposition. Children need excellent early learning, a great K-12 experience, and opportunities to continue their learning after high school.

Lawmakers need to find the money to do all three.