On Monday, September 23, the Council unanimously adopted a resolution setting out a work plan for making voluntary high-quality preschool available and affordable to all of Seattle’s children. The resolution calls for an action plan to be presented to the Council in April of 2014 with options for program design and funding sources. It commits the Council to moving forward with the most feasible option for ensuring that pre-school will be available to Seattle children as soon as practicable.
Work on developing a comprehensive pre-school program has been underway in the City for a number of months, as both the Council and executive staff have been exploring alternatives, developing data on the effectiveness of preschool, and looking at options for moving ahead. This resolution summarizes the results of that work and includes an inventory of questions that need to be answered and policy choices for a preschool program.
There is ample evidence that high-quality preschool dramatically increases academic performance later in life and significantly increases graduation rates. In the long run, it also leads to better health, higher- paying jobs, and lower rates of criminal behavior. Political decisions are often made on the basis of what appears to solve a problem right now, or at least in the near future, but preschool is a long-term investment that returns positive results in the long term. It is often challenging to get elected officials to focus on this kind of long-term thinking, and it required great and patient leadership from Councilmember Burgess to get us to the point of being able to make this commitment.
In addition to the benefits for children, universal preschool also benefits parents by making it easier for them to hold jobs and attend school. Around the country only two states and a handful of cities and school districts have implemented high-quality preschool open to all children. Seattle will again be on the cutting edge when we proceed with this program.
There are approximately 13,000 three and four year olds residing in the City of Seattle. Of these, approximately 30% (4,000) are in families earning less than 200% of the Federal Poverty Level ($47,100 is 200% FPL for a family of four in 2013), and as many as half (2,000) of those children are not enrolled in any preschool program. Even those that are enrolled are often in programs that are not of high enough quality to deliver the full results that preschool education can attain. To be effective, programs must have well-qualified teachers, a sufficient number of days and hours of classroom time for the children, a sufficiently low student-to-teacher ratio, and an evidence- based curriculum that supports the “whole child,” including play-based learning, development of social-emotional skills, and meaningful engagement by parents/guardians.
The Council envisions that the City’s pre-school program will strengthen existing preschools and encourage their expansion as well as the creation of new preschools, with all preschools meeting evidence based standards. We see the program as providing free tuition and support for households earning 200% or less of the Federal Poverty Level and a sliding scale of fees for households earning above 200% of the FPL (the higher the household income, the higher the financial contribution from the household) or a similar subsidy structure. We will begin with implementation for four year olds and phase in three year olds as rapidly as feasible. As with Head Start, we would include important wrap-around services such as health screenings for vision, hearing, dental, immunizations, nutrition, and mental health. We would also include services such as home visitation and other forms of support for children facing additional challenges such as those with developmental disabilities, household income below the Federal Poverty Level as well as those who are homeless or from immigrant or refugee families.
It will be critical to the success of this program to develop appropriate funding options. The Council intends to look at a wide range of possibilities, including funding from the City’s General Fund, fees, a local property tax levy lid lift, and/or other innovative funding options.
Creating a program for universal access to preschool is an incredibly important step towards a society that works for all. It is great to be moving forward, and I am excited about participating in the next steps in 2014.