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Just over a century ago the head of New York City’s school system started adding high schools to uplift waves of immigrants from Europe.

“It is only through a high-school education,” Chancellor William Maxwell said, “that the son of a poor man obtains an approach to equality with the son of a rich man in opportunity for success in life.”

These days, a high-school education is even more important, usually as a step toward college, which more and more jobs demand.

But educators are now looking at the other end of the education spectrum as the key to success in life.

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Overwhelming research shows that success in high school and college rests on getting a strong foundation much earlier in life and public schools are trying to adapt.

Tuesday, a group of educators held a news conference to urge the Legislature to invest in early education as a part of fulfilling its commitment to basic education.

The Legislature is wrestling with increasing K-12 education spending under court order while facing a budget deficit.

The educators said spending on early education will save money in the long term and make schools work better for everyone.

Students who arrive at kindergarten ready to learn go on to have higher high-school graduation rates, more success in college, and lower incarceration rates than students who have arrived unprepared.

And when students aren’t ready, schools have to spend more money on remedial efforts in higher grades. Teachers have to take time away from lessons to manage behavior.

Washington has a much-praised program called ECEAP (Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program), which provides preschool education, health services, intensive family support, and helps parents be involved in their children’s education.

The results are amazing, everyone loves it, but there’s not enough money to go around. There’s no room for more than 32,000 eligible 3- and 4-year-olds, according to the Washington State Association of Head Start and ECEAP.

The association, which staged the news conference event at Star Lake Elementary School in Kent, is asking the Legislature (which created ECEAP in 1985) to add enough funding for 1,500 more children in the upcoming two-year budget and to spend more on infants and toddlers who are at risk of academic failure without early intervention.

Federal Way Public Schools Superintendent Rob Neu said his district is among those with the greatest unmet need for early education. He said it’s time for the state to see prekindergarten as part of basic education.

“If we want our students to be successful throughout their K-12 experience, to graduate high school and be college- and career-ready and to have successful adult lives,” he said, “then we’ve got to start at the early learning level.”

Susan Enfield, Highline School District superintendent, said a seamless education experience that begins early is, “truly the only way that we are going to close the gaps and ensure equity and access for all of our children.”

At present only about 20 percent of the pre-K-eligible children in her district have access to a quality pre-K setting, Enfield said, and only 50 percent of children have access to full-day kindergarten.

Districts have to find money on their own. Seattle is in the middle of a five-year action plan that includes forming partnerships with other organizations to provide pre-K education, and using fees to raise money to offer full-day kindergarten at all of its elementary and K-8 schools. The state pays for only a half day of kindergarten.

Linda Sullivan-Dudzic, special programs director for the Bremerton School District, said that before Bremerton made a push to increase the availability of high-quality pre-K programs, only 4 percent of students entered kindergarten with a strong foundation in reading.

Money had to be diverted from other uses to help as many students as possible catch up. Early-education programs in the district are turning that around: Bremerton’s latest raw data on reading shows 68 percent of students coming to kindergarten ready, and there has been a similar improvement in math readiness.

Sullivan-Dudzic said Bremerton saves $4,000 for each student who has gotten a strong foundation in an early-education program. Imagine the savings if quality pre-K were available to all children?

A teacher at the news conference said children who’ve attended a high-quality preschool know their numbers and letters, but more important they are familiar with classroom expectations, and that makes her job easier.

There’s not much to argue against the educators’ agenda, but it does require reframing our idea of what constitutes basic education and changing it to reflect the times and the research.

Public education starts in preschool and that is a smart place for the Legislature to invest for the best long-term returns.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or

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