Children in Chelan and Douglas Counties are just heading back to school. Along with their new backpacks filled with new paper and pencils are tucked not only their hopes and dreams for bright futures, but our economic necessity, for them to grow in to the productive and skilled workers that our businesses need.
We commend the Washington Legislature for appropriating an additional $1 billion for K-12 education and an additional $22.4 million in new money for high-quality early learning for income-eligible 4-year-olds. These are both smart investments that make sense not just for children, but for the long-term strength of our economy as well.
In Chelan and Douglas counties we have approximately 7,600 children younger than 5 years of age and around 30 percent of them live in families at or below the federal poverty line. The foundation for academic success is laid early — when a child’s brain develops rapidly to build the foundation of cognitive and character skills necessary for success in school, health, career and life. And high-quality early childhood education is making a real difference when it comes to bridging achievement and opportunity gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged children.
According to evidence compiled by America’s Edge and Dr. James Heckman, Nobel laureate in economics, early childhood education fosters cognitive skills along with attentiveness, motivation, self-control, persistence, and sociability — the character skills that turn knowledge into know-how and people into productive citizens.
The National Institute of Early Education Research reports that children who have participated in high-quality pre-K programs are performing significantly ahead of their peers in both math and literacy by the time they were past third grade. Additionally, numerous studies show correlations between quality early learning and increased high school graduation rates and reductions in the number of young people involved in criminal activity later on.
Giving more Washington children a foundation for academic success is especially important in light of the challenges many are facing. Right now, 66 percent of our fourth-graders read below grade level, 60 percent of eighth-graders are below grade level in math and 23 percent of students do not graduate from high school on time.
While these statistics are bleak on their own, they also point to later problems for our workforce, since more and more jobs require formal education beyond high school. Seven out of every 10 new jobs created in Washington between 2008 and 2018 will require some type of post-secondary education, and this number is supposed to grow 38 percent faster than the number of jobs for high school dropouts. Experts also predict a 24 percent growth in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) jobs over that period of time, of which 90 percent will require post-secondary training or education.
In order to set our children on the right path, we need to build on the momentum created by our Legislature and bring high quality pre-K to more children. We have an opportunity to do so through a new proposed state-federal partnership that would give Washington and other states funding to create, strengthen and expand quality pre-K for 4-year-olds and provide high-quality childcare for children from birth through age 3. The proposal puts states in the driver’s seat when it comes to developing their programs, and it would help us meet the goal of offering quality early learning to every low- and moderate-income 4-year-old in Washington.
We urge our Congressional delegation to work with their colleagues in Congress and the administration to make this proposal a reality for the sake of kids and families today and for our economy in the years to come.
Alan Walker is executive director of United Way of Chelan and Douglas Counties and Steve Leahy is Washington state director of America’s Edge.