12-08-2016  9:46 pm      •     

OLYMPIA—Gov. Christine Gregoire is calling for a new rating system for child care centers and preschools so parents can make informed decisions about where to send their tykes.

The governor also is proposing a new cabinet-level agency to pull together a half-dozen child-care and early-learning programs now scattered across state government.

Gregoire, appearing at Seattle's Wing Luke Elementary School in a run-up to next week's release of her budget proposal, said on Monday she intends to make early childhood education a big push.

"Children are born to learn," she said in prepared remarks. "They are ready and able to learn well before the traditional milestones of preschool or kindergarten."

Kids who are intellectually, socially and emotionally prepared at an early age are more likely to succeed in school and to go on college, she said.

Gregoire called parents "the first and best teachers" and that she wants to help.

A new pre-kindergarten agency is one practical step, she said. It would include child-care licensing, the early reading program, state government aspects of the Head Start programs, and early childhood and preschool programs, as well as child-care subsidies for poor families.

The department, similar to one in Massachusetts, would cost $1.5 million to set up.

"Washington needs to be as committed to effective learning before school starts as it is to kindergarten through high school and higher education," the governor said.

The separately elected state school superintendent and local school boards are in charge of the K-12 system, but there isn't a central agency that oversees programs for children before they enter kindergarten. Terry Bergeson, the state school chief, supports the new agency.

The state has about 400,000 children younger than age 5.

Gregoire said one of the early assignments for the new agency should be to create a ratings system for child care centers and preschools.

"Parents can go online to choose a new car or a college for their teenager, but when it comes to selecting the best child-care or preschool setting, they have very little information to rely on, other than word of mouth," the governor said.

Karen Tvedt, director of the state Early Learning Council, said the council envisions a 1 to 5 rating that would include the level of training and education of the workers, the quality of teaching materials, support for parents and compliance with regulations.

Under Gregoire's plan, the ratings would also be used for a tiered system of state subsidies.

"It creates clear steps for providers to move up the ratings and creates incentives for that to happen," Tvedt told The Associated Press.

She rejected the notion that the ratings will automatically drive up child care and preschool costs.

Gregoire said the new department would join with the private sector to expand and improve early learning opportunities in Washington.

Boeing, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other private-sector partners are willing to help Washington create a top-notch system, she said. Melinda Gates has made early childhood education one of her top issues.

An early goal of the partnership would be public outreach about the importance of early learning. Gregoire also envisions an Early Learning Partnership Fund to support quality programs.

Robin Arnold-Williams, head of the Department of Social and Health Services, has said two major pieces of DSHS could move into the new agency: licensing of child-care services and allocation of several hundred million dollars worth of child-care subsidies.

The subsidies help pay for child care for about 34,000 children in families with incomes below 200 percent of the poverty level.

—The Associated Press

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