Early Education Enrollment Below Benchmarks

by Scott Richter and Dr. Patrick Jones

We have known for quite some time about the advantages of early education for child development. A wide range of research, both inside and outside traditional educational realms, is continuing to grow in support of early education and child development.

The American Institutes for Research, says “children are more successful in school and beyond if they are given a strong foundation in the earliest years of their lives.”

According to a report from Brookings Institute, Impacts of Early Childhood Programs, early education prepares a child “so that they can succeed in school and as the next generation of workers and citizens.”

Further, one of the most understood benefits of early education is better preparing children for K-12 academics and beyond. So attending a quality preschool programs doesn’t create future opportunities alone, but prepares people to meet the challenges of new opportunities when they arise . 

According to the National Education Association, outreach and support to families, as well as broadening and expanding early learning opportunities are essential to closing the achievement gap.

The achievement gap is defined as “any significant and persistent disparity in academic performance or educational attainment between different groups of students” and is closely “related to learning gap and opportunity gap”.

In plain terms, early education programs provide essential support to families in need and help build a solid foundation for academic success in grade school and beyond.

In Washington State, government-funded early learning programs include Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP) and Head Start. ECEAP is a comprehensive child development program funded by the state, and is available to low-income children ages 3 and 4-years-old and their families. Head Start, funded primarily by the federal government, and is available to low-income children ages 3 to 5-years-old and their families .  

According to the Washington State Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF), both ECEAP and Head Start provide support for:

  • Child development and learning.
  • Families.
  • Health and nutrition.

Across the U.S., children participating in these programs have a higher likelihood of graduating from high school, enrolling in college, and are less likely to be a special education student or held back in grade school.

Looking at the Share of Children Ages 3 and 4 Enrolled in Preschool indicator, we see during 2017, the estimated share of 3- and 4-year olds in the combined counties enrolled in preschool was a little behind the state and U.S. benchmarks, at 40.6%, 43.5%, and 48.0% respectively. However, during 2006 (the beginning of the series), the share of 3- and 4-year olds in the combined counties enrolled in preschool was 23.9%, while both the state and U.S. were above 40.0%. So the greater Tri Cities can point to substantial gains over time.

Individually, Benton County and Franklin County closely match what has been occurring in the combined counties, starting the series in 2006 at 24.5% and 30.0%, increasing to 40.6% and 40.7% by 2017 respectively.

While there is a little more variability in the cities, from 2006 to 2017, Kennewick and Pasco each saw increases in the share of 3 and 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool, Richland experienced decreases.

When asked about some of the unique challenges in Benton & Franklin Counties, Linda Crowner, Program Manager, Kennewick School District Early Learning, said the area hosts more second language learner families than most places in the state.

For families with a primary language other than English, Spanish is the most common, but Crowner said they “facilitate Early Learning programs in many different languages, such as Chinese, Russian, Somalian, Arabic”, for example.

Perhaps the hardest part of the language barriers and the enrollment of 3- and 4-year old into preschool programs is making sure eligible families are aware these programs are available to them . 

Washington State Governor Jay Inslee has prioritized early education and has pushed for increased funding and expanding access to these programs. Previous to 2018, there was a 10% enrollment cap for families eligible to enroll in early education programs without meeting the 110% federal poverty threshold. In 2018, the enrollment cap was expanded to 25% allowing “the state to serve more children and families who exceed the income limit, but who are homeless or experiencing other risk factors.”

The Washington State Association of Head Start & ECEAP sums it up in short and long-term benefits of pre-kindergarten education.

Short-term benefits include children being better prepared for kindergarten, less likely to be a special education student or repeat a grade, and more likely to graduate from high school than children without a pre-kindergarten education. Long-term benefits include earning a higher income as adults, being more likely to own a home, and being less likely to receive welfare or to ever be arrested.

Everyone wants a good return on an investment or why bother in the first place? Sometimes return on investment is hard to quantify regarding social investments. A solid body of research points to early education investments paying off for children, families, and communities - both now and in the future.