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September 19, 2013 at 6:00 AM

Seattle closer to high-quality universal preschool

Donna Grethen, Op Art

Donna Grethen/Op Art

Seattle is a step closer to becoming one of the few cities in the nation offering universal preschool. A City Council committee Wednesday approved a proposal for voluntary, high-quality preschool for all 3- and 4-year-old children in the city. The resolution passed by the Government Performance and Finance Committee authorizes the city Office of Education to figure out how many 3 and 4 year olds living in Seattle are not currently enrolled in high-quality preschool, design a preschool program to serve them and figure out how to pay for it.

Tall order. But it is being done in cities like San Antonio, San Francisco and Boston.

Besides universal preschool is one of the few things everyone at City Hall agrees on. Under Mayor Mike McGinn, the $231 million Seattle Families and Education Levy helps fund 20 preschool sites operated by 11 community agencies. This City of Seattle news release back in July reported another $470,000 for the city’s Step Ahead preschool program, bringing Seattle’s total investment in early learning to $62 million over the life of the seven-year levy passed in 2011.  Learn more about Seattle’s pre-K initiatives here.

Both the mayor and the man who wants his job support universal pre-K. State Sen. Ed Murray’s mayoral campaign sent an email touting his support for the proposal. The Democrat was in the Legislature in 2006 when Gov. Gregoire proposed a state agency for early learning and a public-private partnership, Thrive by Five, which invests in early learning efforts.

“If I am elected mayor, I will work closely with Council member Burgess, other members of the City Council and stakeholders to ensure we put a proposal before the voters during my first term in office,” Murray’s statement read.

All of Seattle’s wealth, innovative spirit and focus on education ought to be called upon to make this effort succeed.


There are logistical and practical issues to consider.  The biggest is one of  capacity. There are currently not enough qualified early learning providers. Seattle will find ready templates at the state Department of Early Learning, powerful resources and potential partner. Standards are aligned with Washington state and with the National Institute for Early Education Research.

The next challenge is funding. Early estimates are that it could cost anywhere from $7,000 to $8,000 per pupil. The current education levy is spoken for and city leaders seem loathe to deviate from the plan voters approved in 2011. Murray’s statement seem to indicate a separate voter-approved tax increase would be needed.

Councilmember Tim Burgess, who chairs the committee that approved the proposal, is on to something when he tells me we have to think big and we have to think creatively. Early learning seems like an expensive proposition, but consider how much is already spent on preK through programs like Head Start and the state’s Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP). What if that money could be leveraged along with the staggering amounts of philanthropic dollars spent on education these days? Add a little more from taxpayers and suddenly Seattle has universal preschool.

Everyone should check out someone Burgess cites as an influence on the issue:  Nobel Prize-winner James Heckman. The economist argues in Giving Kids a Fair Chance that the mere accident of birth is the greatest source of inequality in America. Children born into disadvantage are, by the time they start kindergarten, already at risk of dropping out of school, teen pregnancy, crime, and a lifetime of low-wage work. This is bad for all those born into disadvantage and bad for American society.

Comments | Topics: 3to23, children, early learning


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