The Legislature should make sure to fund the Early Start Act as budget negotiations stretch into a special session.

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THE Early Start Act, a promising bill that would expand the size and quality of the state’s early learning programs, is in jeopardy of dying off while lawmakers bump heads over the state budget.

At stake is a better chance at success for our state’s youngest citizens.

The Legislature must find a compromise and ensure the bill becomes law this year. Passing a budget and funding K-12 education have been the top priorities this session, but early learning cannot be left on the sidelines.

Lawmakers, education advocates and parents see early learning as a key investment and strategy to make sure children enter school ready to learn. High-quality early learning programs have proved to increase the chances that kids graduate from high school and avoid behaviors that lead to incarceration.

Seattle Times Illustration
Seattle Times Illustration

The state put $163 million into the Department of Early Learning in the last biennium — that’s less than 1 percent of the total state budget.

The Democrat-controlled House’s budget proposes spending an additional $227 million on early learning in the next biennium while the Republican-controlled Senate budget proposes close to a $100 million increase.

One discrepancy between the House and Senate budget proposals is how long to authorize subsidies for low-income children to attend day care before the parents have to reapply.

The House version supports a 12-monthperiod while the Senate version wants only 90 days. The difference in cost is a mere $32 million for the longer period. But the difference in terms of the quality of low-income children’s early education is significant.

Under the current system, a child’s eligibility can change from month to month, resulting in the child not being able to regularly attend a program. Parents and providers spend lots of unnecessary time filing out paperwork. If a child loses eligibility one week, there is no guarantee his or her space will be available the next week. The dynamic leads to instability and chaos for children rather than providing them a solid educational foundation.

The Legislature must pass the Early Start Act and prove it is serious about establishing a robust early education system in Washington.