Seattle Seeking Universal Preschool

February 27, 2014

When Seattle City Council President Tim Burgess says he wants the city to pay for high-quality preschool, he’s talking about schools like the Denise Louie Education Center on Beacon Hill.

On a recent rainy afternoon, about a dozen kids who speak five languages among them were snapping magnetic shapes into towers, painting pictures and cutting tomatoes for the next day’s lasagna.

Five-year-old Jazmine Warren and 4-year-old Angel Gomez peeled garlic and talked about cooking in English and Spanish with their assistant teacher.

When the class makes dishes like lasagna and alphabet soup for snack time, they learn new words and measure ingredients — laying the foundations for reading and math that they’ll need to start kindergarten ready to learn.

For years, parents have been told that preschool provides kids with a crucial jump-start on kindergarten, but unless a family’s income is low enough to qualify for government help, they must pay for it themselves.

Now, amid growing national momentum for government-paid preschool for all, Burgess is proposing an ambitious plan to make high-quality preschool free for Seattle families earning up to twice the federal poverty level, or about $47,000 for a family of four.

Others would pay on a sliding scale, giving parents a break on an annual expense that can cost as much as college tuition.

Burgess also wants the city’s investment in the preschool market to spur existing providers to get better and new, high-quality providers to open their doors.

If the City Council approves a universal preschool program, Burgess said, the city would likely put a property-tax levy on the November ballot to pay for it. If it passes, the program would begin in the fall of 2015.

Council members unanimously agreed last fall to pursue the idea, but Burgess expects debate over how much it would cost and where the city should set the bar on quality.

A consultant is working with the city to resolve many unanswered questions, including:

• How much would universal preschool cost?

• Would preschools get the money or would parents get vouchers?

• How many slots would the city fund in the first year and how long before the program would be fully up and running?

The answers are due by mid-April and costs will figure prominently in the debate.

Burgess estimates that per-child costs of the program would be somewhere between $8,000 and $17,000 annually, but the total price tag won’t be known until the council decides how many children to fund each year.

To be sure, studies of the effectiveness of preschool programs have yielded mixed results, in large part because programs vary greatly in size, cost and instructional quality.

But research into preschools considered to be high quality shows they pay off — especially for low-income kids — with better kindergarten readiness and, later, with fewer dropouts and teen pregnancies and less crime.

In his last two State of the Union addresses, President Obama called on Congress to fund universal preschool. The idea is so popular in New York that both the governor and the mayor of New York City have proposals to make it happen.

Next week, Seattle officials and business leaders will travel to Boston and Jersey City, N.J., to learn more about universal preschool in those cities. They also will meet with government officials in Washington, D.C., to talk about ways to streamline the various levels of oversight and funding.

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