Ask a state legislator how much car tabs cost, and he can usually tell you instantly. But if you ask him how much the state pays for subsidized child care, and how many child-care...

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Ask a state legislator how much car tabs cost, and he can usually tell you instantly. But if you ask him how much the state pays for subsidized child care, and how many child-care centers in his community would accept a youngster at that rate, it is unlikely that he will have a clue.

If you ask a congressman how prescription-drug cards work, or what features semiautomatic weapons can have, chances are he will be able to tell you quite a bit. But if you inquired about how poor a family has to be to qualify for Head Start, or what percentage of the eligible children are served by this $7 billion program, he will probably have to refer you to a staffer to get the answer.

Why is this? Simply put, most of our elected representatives do not prioritize services to children. Since these are usually not the primary issues voters raise with them, there is little political consequence following votes on legislation and budgets for children’s services.

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Is this because voters do not care about young children? To find out, the Every Child Matters Education Fund commissioned a poll of Washington voters earlier this year, done by the Mason-Dixon Polling and Research organization. The results were clear:

• Voters placed children’s issues second in priority only to the economy, ahead of homeland security, the elderly and taxes.

• Fifty-six percent of likely voters said Congress does not do enough for working families with children, while 54 percent say the same thing about their state representatives.

• Two-thirds of voters would increase funding for children’s health and child-abuse-prevention programs.

Why is there a disconnect between voters and their elected officials on prioritizing children’s issues?

A quick look at voting rates from the 2000 election, the most recent complete data, tells part of the story. According to the U.S. Census Current Population Survey for 2000, in Washington state:

• 120,000 of 270,000 women with children under 5 did not vote;

• 80,000 of 190,000 single women with children did not vote;

• 130,000 of 400,000 human-service professionals did not vote.

Washington’s leading early education professional and advocacy organizations joined together this year to address this problem. We went to child-care centers, Head Start sites, after-school programs, public housing and anywhere else we could find parents of children, as well as staff who work with these families.

Thousands of new voters were registered across the state, and 75,000 families were reminded to exercise their right to vote on Election Day.

When these new voters, along with other parents and human-service professionals, make it clear to their elected officials that expanding services to young children is a top priority and a smart investment, our representatives will be much more aware of these basic facts:

• First, the $583 a month per preschool child that the Department of Social and Health Services pays for subsidized child care only covers the rates of the lowest third of child-care programs in King County, severely limiting parental choice in accessing quality programs.

• Second, a family with three children is only eligible for Head Start if it earns less than $15,670 annually; and current federal funding only covers half of these eligible children.

• Third, 134,000 children in Washington do not have any health insurance.

Now is a crucial time for voters who care about children to press the representatives they elected in November on what concrete steps they will take to improve children’s services.

Democracy works best with a well-organized constituency. We owe our children, who cannot protect themselves, our maximum effort to make their needs a political priority in our state and nation.

John Bancroft is executive director of Puget Sound Head Start. While on leave this year, he was state director of the Every Child Matters Education Fund,

, a nonpartisan coalition of child-advocacy organizations, based in Seattle.