Go to your local elementary school and peek inside a room full of kindergarten students. Half of those kids are behind on the first day...

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Go to your local elementary school and peek inside a room full of kindergarten students. Half of those kids are behind on the first day of kindergarten. Most never catch up — 30 percent of those kids won’t finish high school. Thirty percent!

Are you satisfied with that? I’m not.

Our children and grandchildren aren’t getting a fair shot at life. It’s no surprise that the kids who don’t learn to read by third grade are the ones who drop out of high school, and those same kids tend to fill our prisons later in life.

The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population — and 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. We can’t afford to continue this trend of investing more in prisons and less in our kids.

I believe we can do better.

Every child — rich or poor — deserves a fair shot at the American Dream.

The game is rigged against some kids at the start, and the finish line we have today isn’t working.

There’s this popular myth that high-school students will fall into one of two categories: college whiz kid or burger flipper.

That stereotype hurts us all.

It hurts high-school students the most; not their self-esteem, but their future.

I want more kids to go to college. I’ll always vote to open up more spaces in colleges, and it’s great that we’re building a new university in Snohomish County.

Where we lag is the 50 percent of kids who don’t go to college, and the 25 percent who start college but don’t finish.

Kids who don’t finish college aren’t failures — but we make them feel like they are.

Why are we surprised that many kids seem to give up around high school? They’re looking down the field and seeing that they’re so far behind in the race, there’s no way they can win.

There is a better way. Let’s make sure every child in Washington state has a shot at success.

Our universities don’t have room for every high-school student. And there aren’t enough jobs that demand a bachelor’s degree to push for an unrealistic policy of having every high-school graduate earn a bachelor’s degree.

We have two big shortages in the job market right now.

The first — the one you know about — is in high-skill college graduates, especially in math and science: engineers, scientists, computer programmers.

Every week, Microsoft and Boeing hire people from Indiana and India because we don’t produce enough college graduates for these $100,000 jobs.

I want our kids and grandkids to compete for those jobs, and we are giving more people those degrees.

The second shortage is the one that nobody talks about: the skilled trades.

If we want to do something about poverty and crime and build schools instead of prisons, we need to think about skilled trades.

There couldn’t be a bigger difference between flipping burgers for minimum wage and working as a marine welder, making twice the salary as your buddy who has an English degree from the University of Washington.

Are they bad jobs? No. They’re great jobs. Electricians, locksmiths and brick masons are solid careers and make good money. You won’t have to retrain and change jobs six times. We’ll always need people in the skilled trades.

It’s not as simple as spending less money to build prisons and more money to build universities. We need to do that, but it won’t reach the 50 percent of kids who don’t go to UW or Washington State or Western Washington.

For those students, we need to invest in high-school skill centers to give students a third path, a different choice than college whiz or burger flipper.

To give every child a path to the American Dream, we need to boost apprenticeships and invest in community-college programs for skilled trades.

As a father and a college instructor, I know every child is different. I don’t see that as a weakness; it’s a strength we can build on.

Let’s find ways to make sure every child starts strong — and finishes strong.

Rep. Al O’Brien, D-Mountlake Terrace, is chairman of the House Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Committee. He served 28 years as a police officer and saw combat in Vietnam as a warrant officer in the Marines.