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When Seattle City Council President Tim Burgess says he wants the city to pay for high-quality preschool, he’s talking about schools like the Denise Louie Education Center on Beacon Hill.

On a recent rainy afternoon, about a dozen kids who speak five languages among them were snapping magnetic shapes into towers, painting pictures and cutting tomatoes for the next day’s lasagna.

Five-year-old Jazmine Warren and 4-year-old Angel Gomez peeled garlic and talked about cooking in English and Spanish with their assistant teacher.

When the class makes dishes like lasagna and alphabet soup for snack time, they learn new words and measure ingredients — laying the foundations for reading and math that they’ll need to start kindergarten ready to learn.

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For years, parents have been told that preschool provides kids with a crucial jump-start on kindergarten, but unless a family’s income is low enough to qualify for government help, they must pay for it themselves.

Now, amid growing national momentum for government-paid preschool for all, Burgess is proposing an ambitious plan to make high-quality preschool free for Seattle families earning up to twice the federal poverty level, or about $47,000 for a family of four.

Others would pay on a sliding scale, giving parents a break on an annual expense that can cost as much as college tuition.

Burgess also wants the city’s investment in the preschool market to spur existing providers to get better and new, high-quality providers to open their doors.

If the City Council approves a universal preschool program, Burgess said, the city would likely put a property-tax levy on the November ballot to pay for it. If it passes, the program would begin in the fall of 2015.

Council members unanimously agreed last fall to pursue the idea, but Burgess expects debate over how much it would cost and where the city should set the bar on quality.

A consultant is working with the city to resolve many unanswered questions, including:

• How much would universal preschool cost?

• Would preschools get the money or would parents get vouchers?

• How many slots would the city fund in the first year and how long before the program would be fully up and running?

The answers are due by mid-April and costs will figure prominently in the debate.

Burgess estimates that per-child costs of the program would be somewhere between $8,000 and $17,000 annually, but the total price tag won’t be known until the council decides how many children to fund each year.

To be sure, studies of the effectiveness of preschool programs have yielded mixed results, in large part because programs vary greatly in size, cost and instructional quality.

But research into preschools considered to be high quality shows they pay off — especially for low-income kids — with better kindergarten readiness and, later, with fewer dropouts and teen pregnancies and less crime.

In his last two State of the Union addresses, President Obama called on Congress to fund universal preschool. The idea is so popular in New York that both the governor and the mayor of New York City have proposals to make it happen.

Next week, Seattle officials and business leaders will travel to Boston and Jersey City, N.J., to learn more about universal preschool in those cities. They also will meet with government officials in Washington, D.C., to talk about ways to streamline the various levels of oversight and funding.

Officials from Seattle Public Schools will be on the trip, too — which is important to Burgess, who is mindful that in Boston, the school district is responsible for providing most of the high-quality preschool that city is funding.

An arrangement like that probably won’t happen in Seattle, where district officials say they have no room in their already overcrowded elementary schools for any additional preschool classrooms.

To Burgess, that’s a problem. Seattle’s existing preschool market is a hodgepodge, he said, with too few high-quality slots to meet the demands of the program he envisions.

A patchwork

In Seattle, as in most parts of the country, preschool can be many things: state-licensed or unlicensed, in an all-day center or in someone’s home a few hours a week.

A report prepared by the city last month estimated that Seattle had about 12,000 3- and 4-year-olds in 2012, and 37 percent were not enrolled in any formal child care or preschool program, according to U.S. Census data.

There’s also a patchwork of funding and oversight, including the federally funded Head Start program, the state-funded Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program, and the city of Seattle’s Step Ahead program for low- and moderate-income families.

Together, those subsidized programs served about 17 percent of that age group in 2012-13.

On average, the annual rates for full-time, center-based preschool care range from $11,300 for providers serving children with subsidies to $14,700 for centers where parents generally pay the full cost, according to the city’s report.

Among children who are in some kind of care, “we know that some will be in high quality preschool environments and most probably are not,” Burgess said. “They are in safe and warm child care, but they are probably not benefiting from the kind of quality preschool we’re talking about here.”

Ratings on the way

Burgess said the City Council likely will determine which schools are high quality by how well they score on a rating system called Early Achievers, which the state developed over the last few years with a federal grant.

The voluntary program assigns star ratings to licensed providers, similar to restaurant or hotel reviews, that helps parents choose quality care.

Providers pay nothing to participate and receive training, coaching and money to help improve the quality of their care, which earns them a rating of two out of five stars.

Those wanting a higher rating must be evaluated by the University of Washington.

In the first round of ratings in 2013, Seattle has 13 centers with three-star ratings and five with four stars, according to the state’s Department of Early Learning. Another 44 facilities in Seattle have requested a rating and 235 are registered in Early Achievers, but aren’t ready to rate.

Burgess said the council would have to decide how many stars a center should have before it receives city money. He wants to set that bar high, but not so high that it would stifle growth or discourage improvement.

UW professor Gail Joseph, who helped develop the program, said the standards “are some of the very first to actually reflect the latest science in terms of what actually matters in rating child care.”

That includes well-trained teachers, proven curricula and frequent rich, focused discussions between teachers and children that encourage kids to think out loud.

A low-rated preschool, for example, might have a few play areas where kids can build block towers, finger-paint or pretend to make dinner.

But kids won’t get to spend much time at those stations and adults may be too busy dealing with misbehavior because they haven’t clearly established rules of conduct.

In higher-quality schools, kids get at least a third of the day to explore various stations and talk about their experiences with teachers.

“You would see long, extended conversations about what they’re doing at the sand table,” Joseph said.

Space issues

Burgess would like Seattle Public Schools to become a significant provider.

The district already offers preschool for children with special needs and hosts Head Start and other outside providers at several elementary schools.

While district officials support what Burgess is trying to do and are offering advice, it’s unlikely the district would be able to add preschool to its state-mandated mission, said Lester “Flip” Herndon Jr., assistant superintendent for capital, facilities and enrollment planning.

“It’s absolutely essential that we’re a partner with it, but there’s no way that Seattle Public Schools can shoulder the main space issue and needs associated with pre-K,” Herndon said.

Even now, the district is catching heat for its decision to take back the building that once housed North Queen Anne Elementary School — space the Northwest Center’s child-development program has leased since 1982.

The center offers child care and preschool for children with and without developmental disabilities. The district informed the center last month that it must leave by the end of June to make room for a program that provides home-schooled children with supplementary instruction.

The move angered parents with children in the Northwest Center Kids program and last week, Seattle City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw and King County Councilmember Larry Phillips wrote a letter to Superintendent José Banda, urging him to give the center more time to find a new home.

They noted that “as we move toward universal preschool in the city, the Northwest Center Kids offers the kind of strategic program we want to retain and emulate.”

Earlier this month, early-childhood-education experts Christina Weiland of the University of Michigan and Hirokazu Yoshikawa of New York University spoke to the Seattle City Council about their study of Boston’s preschool program, which is based primarily in the Boston school district.

The researchers said children in that program were further ahead in language, pre-reading and math skills in kindergarten — by as much as a full year — than children in a control group who had just missed the cutoff age to attend.

Boston’s improved preschool system has prompted the school district to change the kindergarten curriculum, and now educators are rethinking what first and second grade should look like, according to Boston’s director of early childhood education, Jason Sachs.

In that sense, Sachs said, the Seattle school district is missing an opportunity.

“Not only are we producing really strong outcomes for children, we are changing the school system itself,” Sachs said.

John Higgins: 206-464-3145 or On Twitter @jhigginsST

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