It’s been just over 10 years since Lewis County experienced the worst flooding that either of us have seen during our combined more than 60 years in Washington state. Talk to any resident, and they’ll tell you about the more than 3,000 homes, 200 businesses and 100 farms that were damaged or lost to the flood waters, or of the roads, bridges, churches and public spaces that had to be repaired.
But anyone who lived through the floods will also tell you this: though the water may have damaged our infrastructure, it only strengthened our community. For every store that was shuttered or farm nearly washed away, there were 10-plus people helping their neighbors to safety or digging barns out of piles of slick mud.
The generosity and determination our community put forth in those dark times is not surprising to us. As two public officials — a state lawmaker and a sheriff — we’re lucky to watch what happens when the people of Lewis County come together to make our community a better and safer place every day.
That’s why we came together to write this op-ed, and to issue a call for investments that will build the future of Lewis County for generations to come. We are calling for increased access to high-quality early education and increased spaces for that early learning to take place.
We both know early childhood education is important, especially here in Lewis County. School districts in Lewis County reported that only 29 percent (Centralia) to 60 percent (Mossyrock) of children entered kindergarten in the 2016-2017 school year with the skills needed to succeed.
As a sheriff, I know that when kids arrive at kindergarten ready to succeed, they are far more likely to stay in school, perform at grade level and graduate. More importantly, they are less likely to come into contact with the justice system as youth or adults. One of us even gave a speech at last year’s United Way of Lewis County fundraiser on the importance of high-quality early learning in reducing intergenerational poverty.
As a lawmaker, I, Richard DeBolt, know the cost of failing to prepare our youngest learners. In 2013, Washington state spent $11 million on the 2,000 kindergarteners who were held back in school. If we had invested those dollars in high-quality early learning on the front end, many of those kids could have received the early education they needed to complete kindergarten on time.
That’s why I fought to direct just over $1 million of the recent Capital Budget’s $15.5 million for early learning facilities right here to Lewis County. As a result, our new Discover! Children’s Museum will come with a pre-K center for low-income kids where they can gain the skills they need to succeed in their first year of kindergarten — and the rest of their lives.
This new learning center is exciting, but one facility isn’t enough to serve all the kids in our community. According to Washington’s Department of Early Learning figures, 39 percent of eligible children in Lewis County are not currently being served by state or federal preschool. Even if we had the funding to teach all these kids, Lewis County, and counties all across the state, are still lacking the appropriate facilities that would be needed to teach our kids.
That’s why we urge our community to come together as we did 10 years ago to encourage our legislature to not only increase access to early learning, but to ensure space for the learning to take place.
With the right investments in our youngest citizens and in the spaces where they learn, we won’t be rebuilding what was lost. Instead, we’ll be building a brighter future — together.