About $50 million in federal stimulus money will help shore up progress to help low-income families with day-care and preschool options for their children, write guest columnists Chris Korsmo and Paola Maranan. The money, though, is a stopgap and there's much to do about investing in the early critical years of children development.

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MILLIONS of American children were thrown a lifesaver this spring when President Obama dedicated $4 billion of federal stimulus money — including about $50 million for Washington — to shore up Head Start, Early Head Start and other programs that help low-income families find good child care and preschool options for their kids.

Keep in mind, though, that the federal stimulus is a stopgap measure, one that’s set to last only two years. Our members of Congress need to get started soon on plans to fund those essential programs beyond 2011.

This is an opportunity to do more than just keep those programs going. For years, demand has far exceeded the space in Head Start and the state-funded Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP). While almost 31,000 children from low-income families are eligible to receive services this year, current funding levels allow only about 18,000 children to participate. This leaves thousands of Washington families stuck on waiting lists, and their children are unlikely to get into these preschool programs before they’re too old.

We know that what happens in the first five years of a child’s life has a lot to do with how the rest turns out. More than half the children in our state begin kindergarten without the basic skills they need to succeed, like recognizing colors or being able to wait their turn. Without adequate access to high-quality early-learning opportunities, low-income children and children of color experience a preparation gap that means even worse odds for entering kindergarten without the skills they need. These kids face a frustrating future of playing catch-up to their peers. These programs can close that gap, setting low-income children on the path to greater success.

We also have the opportunity to update the Head Start program with current knowledge about how young children develop. We know far more now about how the brain develops during infancy, how toddlers form secure emotional attachments, how preschoolers learn to interact with their peers, and how nutrition and health influence learning. It has been 40 years since President Lyndon Johnson created Head Start, and it’s high time for Congress to create a comprehensive new strategy for early childhood education, one that spans the critical years from birth through age five.

Knowing what we know today, we can ensure that millions more kids enter kindergarten ready with the linguistic competence, vocabulary, mathematical awareness, social skills and emotional maturity needed to do well in school and beyond.

Policymakers may be wary of expanding or modernizing such programs in the midst of an economic crisis. However, countless studies, including those by Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, show investing in high-quality early childhood education programs for low-income kids can result in economic returns as high as $10 for every $1 spent. Not only does it benefit the individuals involved — resulting in higher graduation rates, higher rates of college attendance, and higher earnings at work — but it benefits the rest of us, too, paying off in terms of increased worker productivity and tax revenue and decreased expenses on health care and crime.

A number of highly effective programs have emerged in recent years, offering models of excellent preschool instruction, child-care practices, parent education and staff development.

Here in Seattle, for example, programs at Children’s Home Society of Washington and Denise Louie Education Center have earned national reputations for their success in preparing low-income kids for kindergarten and beyond.

These are models we can learn from.

Early in his term, Obama looks to be a strong advocate for investments in high-quality early childhood programs, perhaps the strongest advocate to occupy the White House in decades. Now it’s time for Congress to prove itself a worthy partner.

Congress has made a start. Late last week a House bill was introduced that would create an Early Learning Challenge Fund that would provide $8 billion over eight years through competitive grants for states to improve quality and access to early-learning programs. The fund, included in HR 3221, could bring millions of dollars to Washington state to support our efforts.

We are fortunate in Washington to have strong champions for early learning in our congressional delegations. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and Rep. Jim McDermott are among those in Congress speaking out for early learning and have a rare opportunity to spearhead continued progress on behalf of the nation’s youngest and most vulnerable citizens.

Chris Korsmo, left, is the executive director of The League of Education Voters. Paola Maranan is the executive director of the Children’s Alliance.