Over the years the legislature has not been overly supportive of efforts to fund early childhood education in Wyoming, mostly because of concerns that the state could interfere with private business. But members of the Joint Education Committee hope that a new proposal can overcome those concerns. The committee has drafted a bill that will coordinate all the early childhood efforts that currently exist and provide money to improve services. Wyoming Public Radio’s Bob Beck reports.
BOB BECK: Actually the state does provide some funding and oversight of early childhood programs, but the effort is spread out among four state agencies. Last summer lawmakers asked agencies to find a way to better coordinate things and the Department of Education was given the task of overseeing the effort. The Department’s Leighton Thomas says it was an important decision.
LEIGHTON THOMAS: Most of the resources are targeted right now to very specific populations; we don’t have a coordinated effort around early Ed for all kids, so that we can identify where some efficiencies are, where the gaps we are not filling are, and where we are not meeting needs.
BECK: Research shows that early childhood education…sometimes known as pre-school education…is critical in developing learners. University of Wyoming Professor Michelle Buchanan says quality programs are a must. She says if the state can make sure that pre-school learning is effective and put money into the effort, it should make a difference towards improving overall learning for years to come.
MICHELLE BUCHANAN: If we support kids early on, their chances of being ready of school, being successful in school are improved. And if you look at the long term benefits, for every dollar we invest in early childhood we get a return of four to nine dollars.
BECK: State Senator Chris Rothfuss says right now many kids in the state are not entering kindergarten with the same skills.
CHRIS ROTHFUSS: We know that somewhere around half of the kids go to kindergarten without sufficient background, and knowledge, readiness effectively for that kindergarten experience.
BECK: Rothfuss, a Democrat from Laramie, is a member of the Joint Education Committee that drafted the bill to not only coordinate early childhood education services, but also fund resources for community based pre-school and day care programs. The funding would be provided as a grant and can be used to both develop and improve existing programs, so when kids start school they are further along.
ROTHFUSS: Not trying to take over and reinvent the wheel, but trying to build public-private partnerships or community based organizations, entities who are trying to do something and have an interest…provide some additional state funds to encourage those to be developed further.
BECK: Rothfuss says the state does not want to compete with private providers, they want to work with them. One of the best examples of this is in Thermopolis where in 2010 Hot Springs County Early Childhood Liaison Amy Ready approached pre-schools and day cares and asked them to work with the school district to make sure kids were better prepared to attend school.
AMY READY: Kids are reading in Kindergarten now, they are writing their numbers to 100 in kindergarten, all of the day cares and really a lot of the Pre-Schools were unaware of the skills these kids were having to do in Kindergarten. So the school district felt it was important to open up these lines of communication.
BECK: Ready remembers that there was a lot of mistrust early on…but after several months things changed. She stressed a common point.
READY: We are not taking away pre-school away from the community, we are bringing resources to them.
BECK: Ready says the results have been remarkable…young students are achieving at a much higher level and she has been asked to show other districts how the Hot Springs system works.
State Education Director Rich Crandall says there are similar efforts now taking place across the state and he’s excited about the development. His hope is that the legislation will lead to other advances, but he adds that there are occasional unique challenges. For example Sweetwater County is being forced to look at a school run pre-school program.
RICH CRANDALL: They have 275 seniors graduating and they have 575 kindergarteners starting. But we have been working with Rock Springs and Green River to put together a four year tablet, kind of a blended learning kindergarten readiness program, because they will never have enough preschool space for 575 kids.
BECK: But Senator Rothfuss stresses that for the most part it will be existing facilities that will get funding to help improve what they offer.
ROTHFUSS: We are effectively trying to use our funds to improve the situation without competing in the marketplace. And again, I think we were really sensitive to that.
BECK: Rothfuss says the state wants to improve learning at all levels…he and others say this is an exciting piece of the puzzle. For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Bob Beck.