Gates cash will back new plan to help youngest kids thrive – $9 million program signals foundation’s move into early education

The Gates Foundation and Gov. Christine Gregoire will announce a plan today to pour more than $9 million into the education of Washington’s youngest children, signaling a move by the world’s biggest philanthropy deep into early education.

The plan calls for the creation of a partnership, Thrive by Five, to coordinate public and private spending on child care and early learning programs in Washington.

Perhaps as important, the initiative marks a new commitment by perhaps the world’s most powerful charity, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to the arena of early education. Overall, it plans to spend up to $90 million over the next 10 years.

“It’s exactly this kind of partnership we have been hoping would unfold,” said Sharon Lynn Kagan, head of the Office of Policy and Research at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “The presence of the private sector dramatically propels the early childhood field forward.”

Billie Young, director of the city of Seattle’s early learning and family support division, said, “They are going to demonstrate what a quality early learning system would look like.”

In recent years, there has been an explosion of research on the importance of quality education for infants, toddlers and preschoolers — 85 percent of a child’s brain forms by age 3, according to research cited by the foundation.

This isn’t the first time the Gates Foundation has given money to early learning efforts. Most notably, it donated $10 million to the Early Learning Foundation.

But today’s step is a move into the strategy side, the culmination of two years of research on how to get more children ready for kindergarten, and to help poor children start school on the same level as more affluent students.

“This is a complex, comprehensive sort of community-based set of investments designed to bring quality early learning into a variety of settings,” said Greg Shaw, who works on early learning programs at the foundation.

The partnership merges the foundation’s work with Gregoire’s push to make early learning a public priority. Gregoire and the state Legislature created a Cabinet-level early learning department earlier this year.

Now, the $9 million question is, how do you create more places like Curiosity Corner School?

Sitting on the edge of the White Center neighborhood in a tiny and bland strip mall, Curiosity Corner is a model child care facility.

The 22-year-old non-profit boasts a 10-to-1 teacher-student ratio, low staff turnover and partial employee health care benefits, all hallmarks of successful child care centers.

It also has a newly renovated playground, regular parenting classes and nearly 70 percent of its students on state tuition subsidies.

“We know all of the kids. Most of them call me grandma,” said co-director Kathy Wahlborg.

But this model center struggles to get by on a patchwork of grants, corporate largesse, rummage sales, candy drives, pizza sales and car washes.

Families pay $620 a month for a spot in the preschool. The center pays $10,000 a month in rent, taxes and fees for its building alone.

“We live on the edge,” co-director Carol Dodson said.

The problem is that too many Washington child care centers fall short of Curious Corner’s standards.

Yet, child care centers, in-home services and family providers are serving a growing population as more women work and more parents are sent into the work force thanks to changes in welfare programs.

Thirty years ago, 34 percent of mothers with young children worked, while 61 percent of them were holding down jobs by the turn of the century, the Gates Foundation said in its report, “Investing in Children.”

Washington ranks 23rd among U.S. states as far as providing 4-year-olds access to pre-kindergarten, the report says.

In White Center, only 400 of the 1,600 children eligible for state-supported preschool or federally sponsored Head Start programs actually get in, said John Bancroft, executive director of Puget Sound Head Start.

White Center, one of the poorest neighborhoods in King County, will be one of the first to benefit as one of two demonstration projects under the new initiative.

The Gates Foundation had already agreed to spend $700,000 in White Center to help it develop a resource center for child care workers and parents and improve existing early learning facilities.

“We are not talking about creating a whole new set of capacity,” Shaw said. It’s “improving the quality where they are.”

In addition to Gates and Gregoire, the partnership is backed by other local heavy hitters, such as The Boeing Co.’s commercial airplane chief Alan Mulally, the Bezos Family Foundation and State Senate Republican Minority Leader Mike Hewitt.

Success, though, depends on more than just money, commitment and the Gates name.

Highly successful programs are marked by intensive approaches, with smaller teacher-child ratios, a lot of staff with higher degrees, and more home visits than many state programs require, according to a state policy analysis of research by the Family and Work Institute’s Ellen Galinsky.

The programs also require a lot of money. In Minneapolis, for example, groups are trying to raise $30 million to finance scholarships for just 1,600 families.

But the payoff is potentially high. Investing in quality child care can bring a 17 percent return, according to research by Minneapolis Federal Reserve economist Art Rolnick.

The payoff comes in the form of fewer children dropping out of high school or getting addicted to drugs and alcohol, and more children winding up productive, home-buying citizens. In fact, one Michigan study found that society reaped a measurable benefit of $8.74 for each $1 invested.

That argument is critical to Thrive by Five because it relies on the premise that it’s in the best interest of the private sector to invest in child care, preschool and pre-kindergarten.

“We are going to do what the evidence shows, and we are going to do it for the long haul,” Shaw said.

Copyright © 2006 Seattle Post-Intelligencer