Decades of empirical research have demonstrated that enriching early learning experiences build a solid foundation for school readiness and later success. Despite widespread public agreement that quality childcare is an essential basic need for most working families, the market remains prohibitively expensive. The estimated median cost of center-based preschool in King County is $1,079 per month, according to Child Care Aware of Washington. By comparison, the cost of home-based childcare for a preschooler is $776 per month.
Children from families who can’t afford high-quality learning environments miss out on the opportunities available to their affluent peers, which can contribute to greater social inequality and dramatically different outcomes for adults. Some studies have shown that kids who attended preschool saw long-term gains, such as increases in college enrollment, and decreases in incarceration rates and teen pregnancy.
“A society in which your ability to grow and develop as a person depends exclusively on what learning opportunities your parents can afford to buy between birth to 5 is not the way we are going to create the culture that we want,” says Ajay Chaudry, co-author of Cradle to Kindergarten: A New Plan to Combat Inequality. “It’s going to make the inequality much worse for the next generation than it already is.”
This November, taxpayers will be asked to vote on the Families, Education, Preschool and Promise Levy proposed by Mayor Jenny Durkan. The $636 million, seven-year levy would fund things such as health centers at schools, non-school hour programs such as aftercare and mentorships, community college tuition for city high school students, and grow the Seattle Preschool Program (SPP), a network of high-quality, affordable preschools open to all of Seattle's 3- and 4-year-olds with programs such as dual language instruction and inclusion classrooms for kids with special needs.
“It’s not a cookie-cutter model by any means,” says Monica Liang-Aguirre, Director of Early Learning for the city of Seattle. “The positive side is that there’s something for every family. The flip side is that it’s not a one-size-fits-all, where we can just stick you anywhere and you’ll have the same experience.”
PHOTO: JOSHUA HUSTON
Seeds Of Life preschoolers get out their paint.
The program has grown from 15 classrooms serving fewer than 300 children in 2014 to an estimated 82 classrooms serving 1,500 children across Seattle this year. Students engage in a full-time, research-based curriculum taught by certificated staff. Tuition for SPP is on a sliding scale, based on household income.
“Because there are income requirements for subsidies, there might be the misconception that other families can’t apply,” says Liang-Aguirre. “But we encourage mixed-income classrooms and really having a diverse setting.”
The quality and efficiency of the Seattle Preschool Program has improved every year, according to a recent evaluation by a joint team from University of Washington and Rutgers University. The 2017 report found that minority children in the program made the greatest progress compared to White non-Hispanic children. Children speaking two languages had more significant improvement in vocabulary, literacy and math and there was a trend toward greater gains for children living in poverty.
If passed, the Families, Education, Preschool and Promise Levy will build on the pre-existing Families and Education Levy and Seattle Preschool Levy, with plans to expand preschool classrooms to 2,500 students. These enhancements, along with continued K-12 and school-based health investments, would cost the median homeowner about $20 per month.
“Every day, more than 1,500 kids come to preschool ready to learn and get prepared for kindergarten,” says Mayor Durkan. “With the cost of preschool out of reach for many Seattle families, 80 percent of our Seattle Preschool Program families are able to enroll in full-day preschool free of charge. I’m incredibly proud of the work our teachers and providers are doing in the Seattle Preschool Program — not only making Seattle more affordable for families — to set our littlest learners up for success in school and life.”
Some Seattle homeowners, burdened by tax fatigue, are not sure if they can take on another property tax. To soften the blow, the city will offer an exemption to people on fixed incomes, such as low-income seniors, people with disabilities and veterans. Others are concerned that the levy will pit early education against K-12 wraparound services.
Gail Joseph, associate professor of Educational Psychology and director of Cultivate Learning at the University of Washington, is undeterred by critics of the program.
“We have seen steady improvements in quality over a short time, even while expanding at a quick pace. This points to the support of coaches, the commitment of teachers and the dedication of leaders,” says Joseph. “If my children were preschoolers again, I’d send them to SPP.”