High-Quality Early Learning Rocks

Low quality childcare is actually bad for children. Not “less good.” On the other hand, high quality opportunities can improve school readiness in low-income children by two years and make significant improvements in all kinds of non-academic indicators like incarceration rates, family income, etc.

There is a ton of research in this area, and it all points to the conclusion that only high quality programs move the school readiness needle in the right direction. A good, readable summary of the research can be found here.

Early Learning 1-7 inforgraphicWhy does our state fund childcare for about 60,000 low-income children every year? Almost 20 years ago President Bill Clinton and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich struck a deal on welfare reform. They required single parents (mostly moms) to hold down jobs, and in return the government committed to subsidize childcare for those families. This prevented a disastrous scenario for low-income kids. Today the state provides vouchers for very low-income parents to get childcare so that they can go to work. However, this system is wildly inadequate – in the quality of care it affords and the quantity of families it covers.

In the intervening 20 years a tremendous amount of research has gone into trying to discover what does and does not work in early education. We’re no longer in doubt about what matters and how to measure it. (I wish we could do this in K-12, but we’re a ways off here.) The physical environment matters, particularly the quality of materials offered. Even more crucial is the quality of the interaction between the adults and children.

The premise of the Early Start Act is pretty simple. Since the state is paying for childcare, we should only purchase high-quality care. If we do this right we can have huge impact on outcomes for at-risk kids, such as:

  • Higher academic achievement
  • Increased graduation rates
  • Significant improvement in non-academic metrics like incarceration rate, family income, etc.

This is, of course, more complex to implement than it is to mandate. Most of our existing providers are themselves low-income people, and growing the quality of a program requires some financial investment. We intend to offer resources to caregivers who need a hand improving their services and we’ll increase the reimbursement rate for providers who are already achieving a high standard. Doing this with just the stick of a quality mandate won’t work – we need the carrots of programs like financial assistance, improved contract stability, and subsidized professional development.

The great thing about this act is that at a time when we can’t get two-thirds of the House to agree on when to break for lunch, a bipartisan effort has been launched to move this plan forward. Spearheaded by Representative Ruth Kagi, the Early Start Act, or HB 1491, is an exciting opportunity to put a wrench in the cycle of poverty in our state. I hope we can make significant progress this year on this project.

Author: Ross

I am the Director of the Department of Early Learning for Washington State. I formerly represented the 48th Legislative District in the State House of Representatives, chairing the Appropriations committee and spent many a year at Microsoft.