Seattle councilor proposes preschool

Universal program seen as way to improve later academic performance

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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 Councilor Tim Burgess, chairman of the Government Performance Committee, which oversees education programs.

Burgess said he will introduce a resolution in early September for 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 investing in children before kindergarten yields long-term results.

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 worse for Seattlites of color: 53 percent of black and 41 percent of Hispanic third-graders don't read at grade level, according to the state Office of 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. 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 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.

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

"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," Burgess said.