Robert Ullman

Charter Schools. Teach for America. Merit pay. That's the kind of smug, teacher-blaming bullshit that passes for education "reform" these days.

But imagine how different the conversation in Olympia might be if only we could devise a reform that enjoyed both broad bipartisan support and a Dumpster-load of peer-reviewed research proving its dramatic lifelong benefits?

Imagine that this education reform reliably produced higher academic performance, higher graduation rates, less grade repetition, less truancy, and fewer dropouts. Imagine a reform that graduated students who were more likely to go to college and less likely to go to prison, and who by nearly every socioeconomic metric—teen pregnancy, divorce, unemployment, income, even life expectancy—would go on to achieve healthier, happier, and more productive lives.

And imagine that for every dollar invested in this magical education reform, taxpayers would realize tens of dollars of cost savings and new revenue in return.

Sounds like a no-brainer, huh? Then could somebody please explain why the fuck Washington state doesn't fund universal preschool?

High-quality early education is the only reform proven by a half-century of exhaustive studies to produce positive results across all demographics, but particularly for our most disadvantaged children. Everything else is an experiment (merit pay, charter schools, teacher evaluations, and other such ed reforms du jour), but preschool and full-day kindergarten actually work!

Way back in 1985, the legislature established the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP), the Washington State companion to federally funded Head Start. It may be woefully underfunded, but for the children who it touches, the impacts are clear.

The Bremerton School District estimates that it saves up to $3,000 a year on each child who goes through Head Start or ECEAP, just on the reduction in the need for "high intensity intervention" later on—services like special education and one-on-one instruction. Meanwhile, a study in Montgomery County, Maryland, found a $10,100-per-student savings in kindergarten alone, thanks to a 66 percent reduction in the need for special education for kindergartners previously enrolled in full-day Head Start.

In Washington, the statewide savings could be enormous. Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a nationwide organization of law enforcement officials, estimates that by simply serving all children eligible for ECEAP, Washington's K–12 schools could save $120 million a year in special education costs, plus an additional $120 million by reducing grade retention. The Washington State Association of Head Start and ECEAP estimates that even the larger investment in full universal preschool could pay for itself in K–12 savings in as few as three years.

Not that this is news in Olympia, where early-education measures have long enjoyed support from Democrats and Republicans alike—at least in principle.

In addition to ECEAP, the legislature added the Department of Early Learning (DEL) in 2006, the Early Learning Advisory Council (ELAC) in 2007, the Quality Education Council (QEC) in 2009, and the Early Learning Technical Workgroup (ELTW) in 2010.

Yes, Washington has a long and proud bipartisan history of throwing unpronounceable acronyms at the problem.

But when it comes to actual money, not so much.

According to a National Institute for Early Education Research study, only 4.5 percent of Washington's 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in state preschool programs, one of the lowest rates in the nation.

ECEAP is intended to provide comprehensive preschool to 3- and 4-year-olds from families earning up to 110 percent of the federal poverty line, but its $54 million allocation for the 2010–2011 school year only funded 8,024 slots at an average cost of $6,662 per preschooler (compared to Head Start's more generous $9,000 per child), far short of what's necessary to serve even our state's neediest children. At its peak last year, 4,341 children were wait-listed for ECEAP, just part of the 18,600 eligible children left unserved by either ECEAP or Head Start due to lack of funds.

And yet despite this woeful lack of funding, there isn't a legislator in either party willing to openly advocate against expanding access to high-quality preschool. As recently as 2010, a better-than-two-thirds majority of both houses passed HB 2731, a measure that claimed to phase in full funding of ECEAP by 2019 but specified no appropriation and no additional revenue source. And just this past session, several Republicans signed on to HB 2448, a bill introduced by liberal representative Roger Goodman (D-Kirkland), which would have phased in access to universal preschool statewide, charging a co-pay on a sliding scale to families earning above 250 percent of the poverty line.

"These kids need to enter kindergarten prepared," explains Representative Bruce Dammeier (R-Puyallup), one of the bill's Republican cosponsors. "Early learning is the key to strong, successful education."

The universal preschool bill passed out of both the Early Learning and Ways and Means committees, but died in the Rules committee after lawmakers balked at the $600 million annual price tag to fully implement the program.

Dammeier insists that there's "strong bipartisan support" for investing in early education, describing it as "the best thing we can do to get these kids off to a strong education and a successful life," but he says that despite the gap in ECEAP funding, his caucus is focused on serving those at-risk kids who need the support most. "These are the kids who have the most to gain," explains Dammeier. And, he emphasizes, the kids on whom early intervention can save taxpayers the most cash.

But the benefits aren't just short term. Studies have shown that high-quality pre-K programs increase high-school graduation rates by between 10 and 20 percent. High-school graduates earn higher wages, pay more taxes, enjoy lower rates of unemployment, and are half as likely as their peers to burden taxpayers with the high cost of incarceration. According to the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, communities with access to quality universal preschool also enjoy higher property values and higher per-capita local wages, making it a valuable economic development tool that returns $2.83 for every dollar invested. Other studies show the return on investment as high as 12 to 1 when all benefits and cost savings are accounted.

Quibble over the numbers if you want, but nobody questions that universal preschool produces tangible short- and long-term results. So why don't we have it?

"I think I was in denial," admits Goodman about his effort to push the reform in the face of its $600 million price tag. Earlier this year, the state supreme court ruled that Washington was failing to meet its constitutional "paramount duty" to fund public education, and Goodman was hoping to ride a wave of new spending generated in the decision's wake. It never materialized. Given the current and foreseeable budget constraints, there's simply no way to invest in a proven reform like early education without substantially raising taxes to fund it, and that's one conversation lawmakers on both sides of the aisle simply aren't prepared to have.

So instead of funding the one education reform everyone agrees provides a proven return on investment, we're left fighting over partisan proposals like charter schools and "value-added" teacher evaluations, "reforms" whose chief merit seems to be that they don't cost taxpayers much additional money.

That may make great fodder for the op-ed pages, but as far as actual education reform goes, it's total bullshit. recommended