Our system of free universal public education for children ages five through eighteen is the cornerstone for creating opportunity and advancement for the vast majority of American children. In this new century, we must insure that the students beginning public school are prepared to learn. We must enable and support their drive for academic achievement. We must inculcate in them the will and eagerness to learn. These are the prerequisites for retaining and renewing public education as a cornerstone for a vibrant democracy.
A singular focus on the K-12 system and the students in that system misses a central component for academic achievement. That component is the readiness to learn of the child when she or he enters kindergarten. Nationwide, one-quarter to one-half of children are not prepared to learn when they start kindergarten, and many of these kids never catch up. A “world-class” education system means little or nothing to them if they can’t get over the first hurdle of “readiness to learn.” The ugly specter of social stratification, limited opportunities, and the lack of hope follows these kids through the front door of the schoolhouse.
High-quality universal pre-kindergarten (UPK) is the key to enabling all children to succeed in K-12 education. We know that children who have participated in high-quality pre-kindergarten programs do better in school, in work, in life, and as participants in our democracy than those who are excluded from these programs. However, Washington state has yet to create an integrated system of pre-kindergarten programs with well-trained teachers and adequate public funding.
This brief reviews promising models for achieving universal pre-kindergarten with high standards and professional compensation for teachers in Washington state. We develop pathways for universalizing best practices for UPK. We present a continuum of education and care for children from infancy through kindergarten and a parallel continuum of professional development for their teachers and caregivers. Finally, we lay out possible routes for securing the public funding to make UPK a reality.