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The importance and definition of a good education have been spiraling upward for at least a generation, but changes to the way education is delivered move at a slower pace. But maybe that’s changing.

Tuesday, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray announced plans for a Department of Education and Early Learning that would coordinate support for students who need more of it, and strengthen education at the early ages where it has tremendous, lifelong impact.

I’m glad to see that he and the City Council are committed to helping more children in Seattle get a good start in life. I don’t know what the details will look like, and even though there are pitfalls to avoid, designing a system to uplift all children is the right thing to do, and it’s about time.

Once education was a limited luxury attached to class. It changed with society. In this country it was a way to bring poor immigrants into the mainstream and to prepare an industrial workforce. Democracy itself works best when the electorate is educated.

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And now a good job requires more than the basic education that served fine a generation ago, and international competition pushes countries to upgrade education just to keep up.

Murray made sure to say he wasn’t trying to take over Seattle Public Schools, and the school district’s interim superintendent said he welcomes the plan. What the proposal looks like is a support structure built around the district to do what the system doesn’t do.

It reminds me of the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City, which operates schools with a lot of that extra stuff built in. The Seattle plan doesn’t try to turn the Titanic, but to melt the ice around it instead. The job of K-12 schools will be easier if more children arrive prepared for school.

The department would pull together some services and programs that already exist, so it’s not creating an entirely new entity, but potentially making coordination and cooperation easier for those that exist already, while adding to the city’s emphasis on early learning. (A city preschool levy is competing with a union-backed day-care plan on the November ballot.)

So there would be academic and social support; health services; and education that prepares more children for kindergarten. Solid pre-K learning is the most important part of the package, and it is the part of education that used to be left to chance.

But we know now that the gulfs in early education between families, gulfs that parallel parental economic and educational levels, result in gaps in K-12 performance that are extremely difficult for the traditional school system to overcome. It was never designed to do that in the first place.

We can’t afford to let large portions of our population fall by the wayside. We lose international competitiveness, cost ourselves tax dollars addressing social and health issues down the road, and worst, we watch as far too many people are denied a fair shot at reaching their potential.

Over the weekend my son and I debated the fate of the United States based on how well it does educating its population. He graduated in May with a chemistry degree and in school he made friends with lots of science and engineering majors from China, India and elsewhere in Asia.

He shares their work ethic and said their preparation ought to make the U.S. step up its game. I said those countries educate some people well but leave out great swaths of their populations. He reminded me that we do, too.

On paper we have everyone sitting in a classroom, but the outcomes vary greatly.

Murray cited Seattle’s statistics for students of different backgrounds and the disparities were as sad as they are in most American cities.

Do you remember Newton’s first law of motion? “An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.”

Early in its history, this country set the balance of forces in such a way as to ensure certain outcomes based on class and race that are no longer acceptable, but the balance is so customary we haven’t done enough to upset it — to give enough of a push or a tug to change the trajectory of lives that, without a change, will follow the paths of the generations before them.

Murray said Tuesday, “I want Seattle to be the first urban city in America to eliminate this achievement gap.”

I hope other cities will take up that challenge. New York City began its school year Thursday with free, full-day pre-K for all its young children.

We Americans may finally be moving out of our rut.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or

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