When the Washington state Legislature gets back to work in January it will be poised to continue its run of support for early learning. But, the budget landscape is marked by one significant feature: the state Supreme Court’s demand for a substantial down payment on a multi-billion investment in K-12 education.
Heading into the session, early learning supporters are optimistic that legislators will continue developing the state’s quality rating and improvement system Early Achievers, improving child care subsidies and supporting professional development. The top vehicle for that progress will be the next version of the Early Start bill, legislation that debuted last session and would have made improvements to early learning around the state.
According to the Early Learning Action Alliance, in this legislative session, the measure should:
- Leverage Early Achievers to expand access to high-quality care for families in the greatest need
- Improve child care stability for families by authorizing subsidies for 12 months and awarding slots to high quality programs
- Add financial incentives and career paths for early educators
There will be a multi-billion-dollar caveat in 2015, however. In September, the state Supreme Court ruled the Legislature was not following its court order in the landmark McCleary v. State decision, which held Washington is underfunding public education to the tune of billions of dollars, the Seattle Times reported. The court held the Legislature in contempt but gave it this coming session to approve a funding plan, according to the Times.
Some think this ruling could complicate the early learning debate — pre-kindergarten, preschool and child care are not part of the state’s official definition of public education. But some legislators say early learning must be part of the McCleary conversation and solution because schools save money when children get great, high-quality early learning and need fewer support resources when they enter school.
Another priority for early learning supporters will be expansion of the infrastructure of high-quality early education the state has been building for a decade, albeit perhaps at a slower pace than some will like. This will include expanding the state preschool system, the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP). Under an existing plan, the ECEAP program will cover all eligible families across the state by 2018-19.
This session, there will be a lot of moving pieces, and it remains to be seen how those pieces will fit with early learning. Stay tuned.