Sen. Patty Murray came to Richland on Thursday wanting to collect evidence of the importance of early education to take back to Congress.
She didn’t leave empty-handed.
Parents, teachers, education officials and law enforcement spoke of how preparing children before kindergarten is critical to their long-term success as well as the safety and prosperity of their communities.
“We have kids who don’t know how to hold a pencil. How to write their name,” said Tammy Morrow, a kindergarten teacher at Richland’s Jefferson Elementary School, who participated in Thursday’s panel discussion.
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Murray, D-Wash., has introduced legislation that would create competitive state grants for preschool programs and has designed a budget already approved by the Senate to eliminate cuts to early education programs such as Head Start, a federal preschool program aimed at helping low-income families.
She and others acknowledged there is still a lot of work to do, but that early education needs the nation’s attention in order to improve quality of life, strengthen the economy and stop escalating law enforcement costs.
“To those who say we can’t afford this, I say what we’re paying for is more expensive right now,” Murray told the media.
Her visit was the fourth she’s made in recent weeks around the state as she seeks support for her Ready To Learn Act with its competitive early education grants.
Murray, a former preschool teacher, spoke of how numerous studies and research show the benefit of educating kids before they enter kindergarten but those findings are being ignored or not fully implemented.Sequestration, the automatic federal budget cuts that went into effect when Congress failed to agree on a budget, pose another problem, she said.
Not only are mandated cuts affecting the Department of Defense and Hanford workers, but also Head Start.
Jim Skucy, executive director for Benton Franklin Head Start, said his office has to cut $200,000 from its budget. That means 37 student slots will be eliminated, all at Richland’s Jefferson and Marcus Whitman elementary schools, and there also will be staff furloughs and other adjustments.
Morrow said she wishes there could be more Head Start programs, noting they not only prepare students for kindergarten but also help identify students who have learning disabilities or special education needs.
And the families served by the program said they realize how important it is.
“She knows that by having this program available to her children it will help them succeed in life,” said Celia Alejandro, a Head Start official interpreting for parent Dora Benavidez.
Richland Assistant Superintendent Erich Bolz said his district has taken efforts to make more students ready for kindergarten but about 40 percent still don’t have all the necessary skills when they first walk into a classroom.
Benton County Sheriff Steve Keane and Kennewick Police Cmdr. Craig Littrell talked about how students who don’t do well in school are more likely to commit crimes. That means money that could go to other programs has to go into law enforcement to keep communities safe, they said.
Murray said the amount of money that would go to the competitive grants she’s proposing hasn’t been determined yet. And despite the clear call for better-funded early education programs, it will be difficult given the demand for funding requested by other federal agencies and the ongoing stalemate over the nation’s budget.
“We haven’t even been able to get (the budget) to a conference committee (with the House) yet,” said Sean Coit, one of Murray’s aides.
But Murray said she’s committed to the cause and will continue to insist more resources go the educational needs of young children.
“I know (resources) are scarce but we have to put them where they’re needed,” she said.
-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @_tybeaver