Early childhood education’s powerful promise needs funding

This piece originally appeared in the Seattle Times.

One of the great questions of our time is how our nation invests in the next generation. We believe one of the smartest financial commitments we can make for our future is investing in early childhood education so all children have a strong start in life and can reach their full potential.

High-quality early childhood education is the foundation for thriving communities and healthy economies. Research has shown that 90 percent of a child’s brain is developed by the time he or she reaches the age of five. Children left out of early childhood education and quality child care find themselves at a distinct disadvantage and may struggle to catch up for the rest of their school years.

Investing in early learning is especially crucial for disadvantaged children; it has been shown to be the most effective way to break the cycle of poverty in our country. When we don’t provide support for programs like pre-K, we leave far too many children behind. We leave their potential unharnessed and deprive the world of their passion, heart, and drive.

When we underfund these essential programs, we put our communities at risk. This is not only an important social-justice issue, but a profound factor impacting the economic development and growth in our communities.

In Washington state, we have taken several positive steps to ensure more kids have access to high-quality early childhood education. Last year, the Legislature passed the Early Start Act to give more early learning providers the resources they need to improve the quality of care for the children who need it most. As a result, more kids will be ready for kindergarten.

This will have long-term benefits. Children who attended Washington state’s Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program had much higher math and reading scores in third, fourth and fifth grades than kids who did not attend the program, according to a report released in 2014. In fact, the positive impact of the Early Childhood Education program has had on test scores is nearly twice the average impact similar early learning programs have had in other states.

We are proud that our state is taking steps to ensure all of our children have access to early childhood education. We are fortunate that we have quality programs like those provided by Save the Children and that Ross Hunter, the new director of the Washington Department of Early Learning, has worked tirelessly to advocate for increased investments in early childhood education. But we know the work isn’t finished.

Currently, nearly 27,000 children in Washington state are eligible for the Early Childhood Education program but are not served by the program or Head Start due to a lack of funding. Only 43 percent of the eligible population is able to participate in these programs that could drastically change the trajectory of their lives. While great progress has been made, we must do more to realize the full potential of the program and to ensure all kids in Washington state have access to high-quality early childhood education.

We share this belief with a growing and broad range of leaders and organizations — from across the political spectrum and within the business community — who are convinced early childhood education is one of the best investments we can make in our shared future.

For these reasons, we urge Gov. Jay Inslee and our state elected leaders to prioritize our kids and invest in these crucial high-quality early learning programs this legislative session.

Today’s children are the next generation of parents, teachers, scientists, entrepreneurs, community and business leaders in our community. We must invest in them today. Our future depends upon it.

Jim Sinegal is co-founder and former CEO of Costco Wholesale. His daughter, Suzanne Sinegal McGill, is co-founder and president of Rwanda Girls Initiative.