Weekend Highlights

Published October 22, 2013
Our Schools

It’s Time for High-Quality, Universal Preschool in Seattle

by Tim Burgess, Seattle City Council

The Seattle City Council took a bold step for Seattle’s children and for our entire city’s future on Sept. 23: we unanimously established an ambitious work plan to make voluntary, high-quality preschool available and affordable to all 3- and 4-year-old children in Seattle.

High-quality preschool for Seattle’s children will enable them to flourish and create a safer city, a smarter workforce, and a brighter future for everyone. There are compelling reasons why we cannot afford to wait.

Also in September, approximately 51,000 aspiring scholars started their school year at one of 95 Seattle public schools spread across our city. Unfortunately, many started needlessly behind and it will be extremely difficult for them to catch up.

Imagine 100 new kindergarteners with their little backpacks entering school for the first time. By third grade, about one-fourth of these youngsters will not be reading at grade level, a key indicator of a hard academic road ahead. And, indeed, 23 of them won’t graduate from high school.

It is far worse for our children of color and those kids living in poverty. Of 100 children living in poverty who started kindergarten this year, 39 won’t be able to read at grade level in third grade and 27 won’t graduate from high school.

These statistics are stunning, yet this has been the reality for years. Kids who don’t graduate from high school face a very bleak future in today’s demanding and dynamic job market.

All of us lose when children aren’t educated for the future. The costs we will bear are staggering: higher crime and unemployment, more expensive social services and remedial catch-up courses, and the strong likelihood this cycle will keep repeating itself for generations.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Nobel laureate James Heckman documents in his new book Giving Kids a Fair Chance that early investments reap huge benefits: “Early interventions can improve cognitive as well as socio-emotional skills. They promote schooling, reduce crime, foster workforce productivity, and reduce teenage pregnancy.” Seattle is an emerging leader in making smart investments early in a child’s life. In 2009-2010 we strengthened the Families & Education Levy and voters approved a doubling of funds in 2011. In 2012, the City Council approved full funding of the evidence-based Nurse-Family Partnership, which empowers low-income, first-time moms beginning in pregnancy and lasting until their child is two.

But, despite these good efforts, we’re not doing enough to close the opportunity gaps. It’s time Seattle took another bold step forward. It’s time to implement a voluntary, high-quality, universal preschool program for all of Seattle’s three- and four-year old children.

Today, thousands of our children are either not enrolled in early learning programs at all (because of insufficient space or they can’t afford it) or they are enrolled in programs lacking the quality needed to produce the best outcomes. It’s going to take bold leadership to close the gaps in access and quality.

The access gap can be closed by making preschool available to everyone. Let’s make it free for families earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level (about $47,000 for a family of four) and set up an escalating scale of fees for those making more.

The quality gap can be closed by ensuring that evidence-based practices are adopted to produce the best outcomes: well-qualified and adequately paid teachers, a sufficient number of days and hours of classroom time for the kids, a low student-to-teacher ratio, and vigorous parent involvement.

This is not just about academic achievement. The evidence clearly shows the best curricula support the whole child, including play-based learning and development of social emotional skills.

Other trailblazing jurisdictions across the country, like Boston and San Francisco, are already implementing universal high-quality preschool and the participating children are achieving positive outcomes.

In his 2013 State of the Union Address, President Obama said, “Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on – by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.”

Implementing high-quality preschool for all of Seattle’s kids won’t be easy. The good news is that what’s best for our children can benefit everyone in our city.

Tim Burgess is a member of the Seattle City Council. More information can be found on the City Council’s Preschool for All website.


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* Visit the Seattle City Council’s Preschool for All website at www.seattle.gov/council/issues.htm.

* To see a KIRO survey of Seattle voters on this topic, visit www.kirotv.com/gallery/news/poll-results-are-you-favor-universal-pre-school/gCFHL/#4006122.

* For additional research on the benefits of high-quality preschool, visit http://fcd-us.org/resources/evidence-base-preschool.