Everett’s Starbright Early Learning Center in June 2020. The Snohomish County Council is expected to add early learning centers to a spending plan for the Puget Sound Taxpayer Accountability Account. (Olivia Vanni / Herald file)

Everett’s Starbright Early Learning Center in June 2020. The Snohomish County Council is expected to add early learning centers to a spending plan for the Puget Sound Taxpayer Accountability Account. (Olivia Vanni / Herald file)

County Council proposes to address a big pre-K learning gap

Members are rethinking how to spend earmarked education money to “make a real difference.”

EVERETT — Snohomish County leaders are rethinking their priorities for education money that was expected to be doled out to local schools and colleges — until the pandemic hit last year.

The Snohomish County Council is expected to vote Wednesday on a measure that would add early learning centers to a spending plan for what is known as PSTAA, or the Puget Sound Taxpayer Accountability Account.

Councilman Jared Mead, who has advocated for the inclusion of early learning, has said it’s the best way to ensure that the money reaches those who need it the most, giving vulnerable young children a boost that could set them up for success in school and beyond.

“When you’re talking about early learning, you’re talking about everybody. Because everybody is zero to 5 years old at some point in their life. And everybody will go through the K-12 system,” Mead said last month at a council committee meeting.

Snohomish County is expected to receive roughly $80 million between 2019 and 2034. The account, created by the Legislature in 2015, is funded by a sales-and-use tax offset fee that Sound Transit pays on construction costs.

So far, the county has about $935,000 from the account. The county’s 2021 budget, passed last fall, cleared the way for the distribution of $800,000.

State law requires that the funding be spent on education. But it’s up to local governments to determine exactly how the dollars are divvied up among early learning, K-12 and higher education.

Council members have reached consensus on the main provisions of the plan, to be formally considered at a meeting that starts at 9 a.m. on Wednesday.

The measure would require that nearly 40% of the money be spent on early learning, with some of that money funneled through school districts and some funneled through public institutions of higher education.

Local schools and colleges would also get some money to spend on their students.

In January 2020, the council allotted 50% of the money to higher ed and 50% to school districts within Sound Transit’s boundaries. But that plan fell to the wayside amid the pandemic.

The council now sees an opportunity to correct the past council’s omission of early learning.

Mead originally proposed that all of the PSTAA money be spent on early learning, to include childcare programs administered by schools and colleges.

Forty-four percent of Snohomish County kids, when entering kindergarten, are failing to meet kindergarten standards in at least one of six areas, according to the council member’s research. That’s almost 10% lower than the statewide average of children who start kindergarten without being ready, Mead told his colleagues during a Feb. 8 meeting of the council’s committee on law, justice and human services.

“So if we want to make a real difference (in) the lives of the population here in Snohomish County, we’ve gotta be focused, we’ve got to be laser-focused, with the limited dollars that we have where we know we can have the most substantial impact — which, based on all the data, we know is in the sector of early learning,” Mead said.

Children who enter kindergarten unprepared are less likely to graduate on time or go to college, Mead said. During their lifetimes, they are also more likely to have lower earnings, need state assistance and commit crimes, he said.

Under the new plan, the Edmonds, Everett, Mukilteo, Northshore, Snohomish and Marysville school districts would get 67% of the PSTAA funding. The the districts would be required to spend half of that amount solely on early learning, to include subcontracts with community providers.

Edmonds College, Everett Community College and Washington State University Everett would each receive an equal share of the remaining one-third of the PSTAA funding. Each college would have to spend 10% of its allocation on early learning programs.

K-12 schools already run about 80% of the early learning programs in Snohomish County, according to Mead.

Edmonds College and EvCC also run child care centers, now a common resource on college campuses for students and faculty.

Early childhood education advocates have said the new funding source could foster better collaboration among school districts, nonprofits and other organizations that play a role in child care, creating an early learning “system” that the county now lacks.

Children who enter kindergarten unprepared typically have thousands fewer vocabulary words than their peers. And often they never fully recover, according to Terry Clark of ChildStrive, an early learning organization with programs in Everett and Lynnwood.

“If children are unable to read by third grade, they miss out on much of learning,” said Clark, ChildStrive’s retired executive director, last month. “Because (in the) years leading up to third grade, children learn to read. Third grade on, children read to learn. And the school system is not prepared to provide the type of help that children who can’t read at that point need to catch up.”

When the council’s human services committee continued discussions on the topic last week, Clark again called for a PSTAA spending plan including early learning.

“If we take the opportunity now to create an early learning system through this work together,” she said, “then that is going to pay dividends long after these dollars are gone.”

Rachel Riley: 425-339-3465; rriley@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @rachel_m_riley.

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