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Originally published Thursday, August 22, 2013 at 8:57 PM

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Seattle City Council considers preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds

The Seattle City Council is considering a plan to provide high-quality preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds in the city. Voters could be asked to fund a levy in 2014.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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In his State of the Union address in February, President Obama called for universal preschool for all 4-year-olds, citing the importance of early learning on academic achievement and graduation rates as well as lower rates of teen pregnancy, drug use and violent crime.

Now the Seattle City Council is considering a plan to create and fund preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds in Seattle.

A funding measure could go to voters in 2014, and a voluntary program for all city children could start in 2015, said Councilmember Tim Burgess, chairman of the Government Performance Committee, which oversees education programs.

Burgess said he will introduce a resolution in early September to develop a work plan and feasibility study.

As envisioned, the program would be free to children whose families made less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $47,000 for a family of four. Others would pay on a sliding scale based on family income.

The cost of the program, and whether funding would come from a property-tax levy or include city general-fund money will be part of the council deliberations over the next few months.

Burgess said the city should move quickly because research shows that investing in children before kindergarten yields long-term results.

“If 3- and 4-year-olds are in high-quality preschool programs, when they enter kindergarten they’re not just ready to learn, they soar,” Burgess said.

He noted that almost a quarter of Seattle third-graders are not proficient on the state reading test, a key indicator of who will ultimately graduate from high school.

The numbers are even bleaker for Seattle students of color: 53 percent of black students and 41 percent of Hispanic students aren’t reading at grade level in third grade, according to the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Burgess estimated that thousands of Seattle’s children aren’t enrolled in early-learning programs either because there isn’t enough space or their families can’t afford it. The quality of those preschools also varies widely, he said.

Seattle wouldn’t be the first city to adopt a preschool-for-all program. Boston and San Francisco have created universal preschool programs. The states of Oklahoma, West Virginia and 31 New Jersey school districts also have government-funded preschool open to all children.

“This could be the big game-changer in education,” said Joel Ryan, executive director of the Washington Association of Head Start and ECAP (Early Childhood Education and Assistance Programs), the federal and state preschool programs for low-income children.

Ryan noted that urban-school districts spend a lot of money trying to catch children up to grade level. He said research shows that kids who get high-quality preschool start kindergarten ready to learn and are less likely to end up in special-education classes or to repeat a grade. And more graduate from high school.

“The most important thing we could do to change the trajectory of a child’s success in school and life is invest in high-quality preschool,” Ryan said.

A Washington state advisory group in 2011 recommended a voluntary, high-quality preschool program for all 3- and 4-year-olds in the state as a key element of education reform.

The budget the Legislature passed this year provided for more slots in the state-funded preschool program for low-income 3- and 4-year olds.

The advisory group’s report noted that the state’s high-school graduation and college-completion rates hover in the bottom third nationally. Only 31 percent of 2004 high-school graduates had completed at least two years of college by 2010. And just 16 percent of black and Hispanic students and 11 percent of Native Americans graduated from college.

Some studies of the federal Head Start preschool programs have shown the academic gains from early learning fade over time.

But Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said that’s not true of high-quality programs, which he characterized as having teachers with at least a bachelor’s degree and commensurate pay, small class sizes, evidence-based curricula, rigorous evaluations and several hours of school per day.

Barnett said high-quality programs benefit not just poor kids. Middle-class kids make up the bulk of public-school enrollment, so more of them are held back in school and more drop out.

“If we want to solve the problem of poor academic outcomes, we can’t just focus on poor kids,” Barnett said.

But Jodi Haavig, program officer for the Gates Foundation Early Learning Strategy Team, said research shows low-income children benefit the most from high-quality preschool. She suggested that targeting poor kids might be better public policy than creating and funding a universal program.

Seattle voters have strongly supported the city’s efforts to supplement K-12 learning in the city’s public schools through the Families and Education Levy, and in 2011 doubled the amount of taxpayer funding to extend programs to more needy children.

Burgess said he thinks voters will see the benefit of funding preschool and decide it’s also an investment whose costs are greatly outweighed by its benefits.

“Seattle can’t wait around for Washington D.C. or Olympia to properly fund early learning for our children. If we invest early, we could have a significant impact on closing the achievement gap,” he said.

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or lthompson@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter: @lthompsontimes

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