‘Pot for tots,’ and other pre-K points

Steve Litzow, a Republican state senator from Bellevue, Wash., is a full-on advocate for pre-K.

Steve Litzow
Steve Litzow

For the past two years, he has chaired the Washington State Senate’s early learning and K-12 education committee. That puts him in the thick of a bipartisan push for early education in the Evergreen State.

On Tuesday morning, Litzow shared a few lessons from Washington state, at a forum sponsored by Idaho Business for Education. A few takeaways:

“This is not about us.” First, Litzow polled his audience of about 30 attendees. It was a reasonably powerful group — including business leaders, Democratic state superintendent’s candidate Jana Jones and three legislators who support a voluntary Idaho pre-K pilot program, Boise Democrats Hy Kloc and Ilana Rubel and Rexburg Republican Douglas Hancey.

By show of hands, Litzow found most everyone in the room has a college degree. That didn’t surprise him, and helped make one of his key points. Improved pre-K programs are not about helping kids from comfortable, well-educated households; they are about elevating young kids from low-income households. “How do you create a self-sustaining taxpayer?”

The importance of an early start. In Washington, the Legislature is under court order to put an additional $2 billion into K-12, Litzow said. But pouring more money into K-12 will only do so much good, if early childhood development is ignored.

Since 85 percent of brain development occurs before age 5, it is crucial to help kids develop the vocabulary that will help them read and succeed in kindergarten and beyond. And while the proposed three-year Idaho pilot is designed to gather in-state pre-K research, Litzow believes the existing research offers “irrefutable” proof of the value of pre-K.

Bipartisanship matters. A bipartisan group has pushed for early education reform in Washington. Much of that is a matter of necessity; Democrats control the House and retain a 30-year hold on the governor’s office, while Republicans hold a tenuous grip on the Senate.

However, many differences on early education issues center not on party, but on geography. Litzow represents Seattle’s suburbs, such as Mercer Island, and says his colleagues in central or eastern Washington have a different view of the world.

System changes. Washington’s pre-K push isn’t occurring in isolation. By 2018, Washington will have an all-day kindergarten system designed to build on pre-K. “We’re going down that path very quickly,” Litzow said.

In Idaho, half-day kindergarten is optional.

Meanwhile, Washington is also talking about tying promotion from third grade to reading mastery — an extension of the early education focus on language and reading skills. The idea has drawn fire from teachers’ union leaders “who are not interested in that level of accountability,” said Litzow.

Reading mastery is not an idea unique to Washington. Gov. Butch Otter’s education reform task force endorses a very similar concept: “We recommend students demonstrate mastery of literacy before moving on to significant content learning.”

“Pot for tots?” Washington has an ambitious goal to increase pre-K access. By 2020, the state wants to make quality pre-K available to 80 percent of children who are eligible for forms of other government-subsidized assistance.

This carries a price tag of $500 million, Litzow said. Some lawmakers see the state’s newly legalized marijuana trade as a potential funding source. A “pot for tots” program, as Litzow put it.

Of course, in Idaho, putting any state money into pre-K has been a tough sell. And marijuana legalization would likely face its own set of political hurdles.

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