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King County Executive Dow Constantine plans to ask county voters to approve a levy in 2015 to expand health and development programs for young children, and ensure better educational outcomes for kids across the county.

Noting that more than 70 percent of the county’s general fund now goes to the criminal-justice system, Constantine said he wants to “rebalance” the county’s portfolio and invest in prevention efforts such as support for pregnant mothers, early-learning opportunities and swift interventions for school-age children who show signs of physical- or mental-health problems.

“The moral argument for investing in our children is easy. But the fiscal case is just as compelling,” the Democrat told about 250 people Wednesday at a Town Hall Seattle forum called “Best Starts For Kids.”

Constantine’s proposal is not for universal preschool, like the program Seattle voters approved in November with almost 70 percent support. But it draws on the same research being done at the University of Washington and elsewhere that shows the brain reaches about 85 percent of its adult size in the first three years of life.

“I’m super-psyched about this,” the executive said after the forum. “We have programs that are highly effective, but they’re limited.”

Constantine said he would work over the coming months with the Metropolitan King County Council and regional leaders, as well as educators and social-service providers to identify programs that have strong track records and deserve more support.

Other elected officials at the forum said they supported the emphasis on investing in programs for early childhood and school-age kids, but wanted to see the specifics and the cost before endorsing a ballot measure.

“There are definitely unmet needs in Bellevue and the Eastside,” said Bellevue Mayor Claudia Balducci. “We’re very interested in the prospect of something that could support what we’re already doing.”

County Councilmember Kathy Lambert said that years ago she taught one of the first all-day kindergarten classes in Monroe. Many of her students were the children of inmates at the state prison there.

“I like the idea of being proactive and spending money upstream rather than in jail,” said Lambert, a Republican. But she added, “I don’t know how much money we’re talking about. We’ll have to look at the numbers.”

The forum brought together many of the groups that supported Seattle’s preschool measure, including the Save the Children Action Network (SCAN), which contributed about $144,000 to the campaign, and the Bezos Family Foundation, which added $75,000.

“If we really believe that kids are our most important resource, we have to put our money where our mouth is. The whole country is watching,” said Mark Shriver, president of SCAN, a national organization.

The county, which doesn’t have a history of working with schools like the city of Seattle does, is talking about a much broader program than Seattle’s universal-preschool effort, building on programs and services the county already offers.

Several speakers at the forum praised Gov. Jay Inslee’s 2015 budget proposal that calls for spending $156.3 million on early-learning programs, the largest-ever state investment.

The recommendation includes $70.5 million for the state’s Early Achiever’s system that rates child-care centers and provides professional development and coaching for teachers.

State Rep. Ruth Kagi, D-Seattle, chairwoman of the House Early Learning and Human Services Committee, said the federal grant that allowed the state to build the system runs out in June.

“The state must step up, or we’re not going to be able to give parents information about the quality of care in their community. They’re begging for it,” she said.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray will deliver to the City Council in February an implementation plan for the first year of the city’s preschool program.

The first 14 classrooms will open in September.

Murray, who co-hosted the Wednesday forum with Constantine, praised the executive for his plan to invest in early learning and the county’s families.

“It’s great that Seattle is doing what it’s doing,” Murray said, “but unless it goes viral, it’s not enough. We need a strategy to grow this.”

Lynn Thompson: lthompson@seattletimes.com or 206-464-8305. On Twitter @lthompsontimes