A new national report explains how Washington and three other states have built high-quality early-education systems.
A new national report holds up Washington state’s 31-year-old preschool program for low-income families as one of the best in the country, weathering good economic times and bad without sacrificing quality.
It points to recent studies that have shown that the percentage of kids ready for kindergarten after attending Washington’s program exceeds the state average and that the students’ improvement in reading and math persists through fifth grade.
The authors say that’s one reason why Washington — along with Michigan, North Carolina and West Virginia — are examples other states should follow.
The report was done by Learning Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank led by influential Stanford researcher Linda Darling-Hammond.
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The authors selected the four states based on their high ratings from the National Institute for Early Education Research, and the fact that the quality of their programs was backed by at least one well-designed study. Two states often cited for high-quality preschool — Oklahoma and New Jersey — were excluded because both have been well studied already.
The authors then created case studies for each state based on a wide range of interviews, observations and previous research. They found that the four states shared several keys to success, including strong bases of political support, investment in teacher training, and incentives to encourage preschools to meet high-quality standards.
They also discussed one drawback to Washington’s program — it’s not big enough to meet the demand and the state’s plan to double enrollment by 2020 won’t be easy because of tight budgets and a shortage of teachers and classroom space.
Washington’s program, called the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program, was among the first state-funded preschool programs in the country when it began in 1985, the report notes.
Its approach stands out because it includes not just preschool, but services for families such as health, vision and dental screenings, and health-care referrals.
The state calls it a “whole child” approach, and that partly explains why the program costs about $7,300 per student per year, which is $2,500 more than the national average for a part day of care, according to the report.
The cost is also a reason why the program hasn’t kept up with demand.
About 11,000 kids were enrolled at some point during the 2014-2015 school year and almost 3,000 more were on the waiting list last March, according to figures from the state released earlier this year.
Enrollment is expected to double by 2020, when, under recent legislation, all eligible parents will be guaranteed seats for their children.
At the same time, however, the Legislature is funneling more money into early child-care, too, which the report’s authors note was a pragmatic choice because it costs less and reaches more kids, though it won’t add preschool seats.
“This unprecedented focus on child care as a way to improve early education, instead of directing all new funding to preschool, emerged as a political compromise,” according to the Learning Policy Institute report.
But money isn’t the only hurdle. Doubling enrollment in the preschool program will require 640 new classrooms and as many new teachers, according to the report.
The state is short on preschool teachers because many are moving to K-12 schools, as those schools hire more staff to provide a full day of kindergarten and reduce class sizes in grades K-3, which also has been required by lawmakers.
The state hopes that it can create incentives for more child-care providers to get the training they need to teach in the preschool program.
Washington can look to North Carolina for evidence that can pay off.
North Carolina was one of the first states in the country to develop a rating system for child care in 1999, which later included public preschool in 2001.
Between 2003 and 2015, the number of North Carolina children attending child care programs with the top ratings of four or five stars increased from 33 to 73 percent, according to the report.