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In a preview of what’s to come this fall, three high-level speakers debated Seattle’s proposal to pay for universal preschool in front of a roomful of business leaders.

Voters will weigh in Nov. 4 on whether to fund a four-year pilot providing high-quality pre-K education to 2,000 4-year-olds. Total cost: $58 million, to be paid through property-tax increases.

The effort would align Seattle with numerous cities and states funding early-learning initiatives, from San Francisco to Florida. All are responding to compelling evidence about the benefits of preschool for young children. But many are also wrestling with significant questions about the staying power of those gains.

Against this backdrop, three speakers — Bob Gilbertson of the Greater Seattle YMCA, Liv Finne of the Washington Policy Center, and Emerald Bogue-Walker of the Yes on I-107 campaign — sought to provide more detail:

Gilbertson, whose organization could well become a provider for the city, spotlighted research on the academic benefits of quality preschool — especially for low-income kids, who tend to start kindergarten with significant deficits and are more likely to be placed in special education, become teen parents and eventually drop out.

The trouble is, there is scant proof that preschool mitigates against these costly social problems.

Gilbertson fielded several questions on the issue of so-called “fade out” — when the early benefits of preschool appear to dissolve — and presented what he sees as the strongest argument in favor of funding the program: Endorsement from Washington, D.C.’s Committee for Economic Development calling quality pre-K the most valuable channel for education spending.

“The research and science of the academic value of high-quality pre-K is undisputed,” he told members of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, citing several studies that tally the return on investment as $7-$10 for every dollar spent on early education.

“If Seattle wants every child to have an equal chance at academic success,” funding high-quality preschool will be key, Gilbertson said. The city’s program would actually reach beyond low-income kids, proposing free pre-K to families making up to $71,000.

That was just one of the problems noted by Finne, Director of Education at the pro-business Washington Policy Center, a right-leaning think tank based in Seattle.

While well-intentioned, said Finne, the city’s plan merely diverts attention from the real problem: Seattle’s public schools.

“To believe that any preschool, no matter how high quality, is going to reverse the failures of the public schools requires a ‘prodigious leap of faith,’” she said, quoting Brookings researcher Grover “Russ” Whitehurst, who takes a more measured approach to the heralded benefits early education.

Finne also worries that city funding of certain pre-K programs would undercut others, force small businesses to close and promise benefits that may never materialize.

As in public schools, high turnover plagues early-education programs, and consistency is a hallmark of quality. The Yes on I-107 Campaign focuses on this, pushing to create a training institute for preschool teachers and mandate living-wage pay.

Bogue-Walker says putting child care workers on a fast track to a $15 per hour minimum wage will be key to the success of a subsidized program.

“Many parents are worried that their children’s teachers will leave for higher paying jobs at Target or McDonald’s,” she said.