DESPITE our best efforts, too many of our city’s children are not thriving in school. Nearly a quarter of all schoolchildren in Seattle Public Schools can’t read at grade level in the third grade — an early warning they might not graduate from high school. This statistic is significantly worse for our African-American, Hispanic, Native American and immigrant youth.
If we invest in our kids early, well before kindergarten, we can change this gloomy reality. Several long-term evaluations show that children who attend high-quality preschools are better prepared to enter kindergarten and learn. They have better high-school and college graduation rates. They have much lower levels of criminal behavior. They are healthier. And, they do better economically as adults.
This extensive and persuasive evidence, recently presented to City Council by Rutgers professor Steve Barnett, leads to one conclusion: It is time for Seattle to make voluntary, high-quality preschool available and affordable to all of our 3- and 4-year-old children. It’s the right thing to do for today’s children and for future generations.
Many of you reading this have struggled to find or pay for high-quality preschool for your children, hoping a slot will open up or barely cobbling together what you can afford. Lack of access means many kids fall far behind before they even arrive at the kindergarten door. The sad truth is that if a little one is behind in kindergarten, his or her life trajectory is going to be difficult.
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In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama advocated for universal preschool for all children, citing research that shows every dollar invested in high-quality preschool results in more than $7 saved in later government interventions.
Thousands of Seattle’s children are either not enrolled in early-learning programs at all — because of insufficient space or high costs their families can’t afford — or they are enrolled in programs lacking the quality needed to produce the best outcomes. We have two critical gaps to fill for our youngest children: a gap in access and a gap in quality.
The access gap can be closed by making preschool available to everyone. Let’s make it free for families earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level (about $47,000 for a family of four) and set up an escalating scale of fees for those making more.
The quality gap can be closed by ensuring that evidence-based practices are adopted to produce the best outcomes: well-qualified teachers, a sufficient number of days and hours of classroom time for the kids, a low student-to-teacher ratio, vigorous parent involvement and curricula that support the whole child, including play-based learning and development of social emotional skills.
Seattle is united in wanting to do what’s best for our children. We’ve proved that over and over again through passage of levies to support education, including the 64 percent voter support for renewal of the city’s Families and Education Levy in 2011, a seven-year $232 million measure that doubled the size of our previous investment, enhanced accountability with improved outcome measures and the introduction of a competitive funding process.
The good news is that what’s best for our children is good for everyone in the city. With universal, high-quality preschool, all of Seattle’s children will have the opportunity to flourish and we will have a safer city, a smarter workforce and a brighter future.
Tim Burgess is a Seattle City Council member. A council committee will begin work on planning for high-quality preschool for all at 9 a.m. on Sept. 4 at Seattle City Hall.