Issue Position: Early Learning

Issue Position

By:  Ruth Kagi
Date: Jan. 1, 2012
Location: Unknown

The Washington State Legislature is a leader in the nation on early learning policy. The legislature has listened and responded to the growing body of research findings demonstrating the importance of the first few years of a child's development in a child's to their later success in life.

Dr. Pat Kuhl, co-director of I-LABS, started the legislature's journey into early learning with a presentation in 2005 to the Appropriations Committee on her research into how infants acquire language through their interactions with adults, emphasizing the importance of a language rich, secure environment to early child development and later success in school. Presentations by Dr. Jack Shonkoff, Director of the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University, focused on the importance of a safe nurturing environment to infant brain development, highlighting research showing the profound damage done to the brain by "toxic stress" -- high levels of stress resulting from severe abuse or neglect of a child. This research was reinforced by program research clearly demonstrating that investments in high quality pre-school and home visiting programs yield tremendous benefits in later years. A study by the Washington State Public Policy Institute concluded that funding for high quality pre-schools and evidence based voluntary home visiting programs for high risk young parents are the most cost-effective investments the state can make. Washington State has used both scientific research and program evaluation research as it has considered and enacted legislation affecting our early learning policies.

In 2006, the legislature created the Department of Early Learning, consolidating child care and pre-school programs previously administered by multiple state agencies. This legislation, which I prime sponsored, has enabled Washington to develop comprehensive, coordinated policies for young children. For example, the Department has worked with the Office of the Superintendent for Public Instruction to promote the importance of child care and pre-school teachers working with kindergarten teachers to help all children arrive at kindergarten ready to succeed. Research shows that the best way to eliminate the achievement gap is very early.

This year, in the face of historic deficits, the legislature did not lose its focus on early learning, understanding that when children arrive at kindergarten behind, they are likely to stay behind. We passed historic legislation creating an entitlement to pre-school for low-income three and four year olds. Because of the current budget challenges, the legislature pushed out implementation until 2018 but funding for the existing Early Childhood Education Assistance program in Washington cannot be reduced from current levels. The commitment was made to build the program to serve all eligible children in the future. I would like to see this entitlement broadened to all children in the future.

While recognizing the need for high quality pre-school, the research in early child development points to the critical importance of the first three years of life. That is why I continue to focus on strategies that support parents and other caregivers of very young children. Not all parents know the importance of reading and playing with their infants and toddlers -- helping them to build a solid foundation for all later learning. The state's public-private partnership, Thrive by Five, is working with private funders and the Department of Early Learning to get the information out and to provide useful early learning tools to parents and caregivers.

The darker side of early childhood development is the damage that occurs when children do not receive needed love and care -- when their parent or caregiver is struggling with drug or alcohol addiction, mental health problems or just the stress of being poor, isolated and without support. When babies do not have a loving, responsive adult to care for them, and their cries go unheard, their bodies produce high levels of cortisol -- a stress hormone that damages the actual physical development of a baby's brain. Children who experience severe abuse and neglect suffer the consequences into their adult lives. Recent research has shown that many adult health problems, like heart disease, substance abuse addiction, obesity and mental illness, are linked to multiple adverse circumstances in a young child's life.

That is why I have worked over many years to obtain funding for programs that research has proven prevent child abuse and neglect. Preventing harm before it occurs is the best possible investment we can make. This session, I sponsored a bill to create a Home Visiting Matching fund which would require private match for state dollars invested in evidence based home visiting programs. Although the bill did not pass, the budget created the fund and $500,000 was appropriated -- which was matched by Thrive by Five Washington. I look forward to seeing the results of this innovative approach to funding programs that truly make a difference in the life and future of children at high risk of harm.

The leadership and legislative accomplishments of Washington State were highlighted at the Kennedy School at Harvard when I was asked to speak on the impact of science on the adoption and implementation of early learning policies. As a member of a legislative policy advisory committee to the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard, I have worked with Dr. Jack Shonkoff to help translate recent research findings on early brain development into a framework that policy makers across the country can readily utilize. Last spring, I was asked by the Brookings Institute to present to an early learning forum in Washington, D.C. on Washington's success supporting progressive early learning policies. I am proud of Washington State's achievements and look forward to building on the solid foundation we have built for early learning in this state.

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