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If Seattle voters approve one of the two early learning measures on November’s ballot, here’s ideally what would happen:

More children would do well in kindergarten. Fewer would need special education or other extra help. Down the line, fewer would drop out of high school, end up unemployed — or in jail.

For every tax dollar spent, the city’s taxpayers would save at least three times that, doling out less for criminal justice, social services and welfare.

Fifty-two years ago, a small preschool program outside Detroit accomplished all that, which still fuels the push to expand early education across the nation, though few have been able to achieve the same results, especially on a large scale.

The Perry Preschool opened its doors in 1962, dreamed up by a young school administrator frustrated with the gaps in achievement between rich and poor children in his small, segregated school district. Principals had shrugged, saying nothing could be done about it. To prove them wrong, David Weikart went around them.

To quiet skeptics, he agreed to make his project a true experiment, with a randomly selected group of 58 students who attended his classes, and a control group of 65 who did not. All were from very low-income families.

From the beginning, the results were dramatic, suggesting Weikart’s hunches about the value of early education — and how to do it well — were good ones. At Perry, teachers taught through play rather than work sheets, focusing on getting kids talking, taking them on field trips, and lavishing them with attention, with four teachers for every 25 students.

The students’ IQ scores shot up, keeping many of them out of special education. Those gains faded when the children reached second grade. But down the line they continued to score higher on tests, and graduated from high school and college at higher rates than their no-preschool counterparts.

Preschool has exploded since then, starting with the federal Head Start program in 1965, and followed by similar programs in most states.

While the results are mixed, many programs appear to make a difference. A recent analysis of 34 of them, for example, showed that, on average, preschoolers arrive in kindergarten a third of a year ahead in reading and math. Still, the landscape is littered with efforts that have spent lots of money with little to show for it.

Florida, for example, expanded its preschool offerings quickly and cheaply with little effect. One of the big studies of Head Start — the nation’s largest preschool effort — raised questions when it showed that the academic gains students made faded by third grade.

Increasingly, researchers stress that good results come only from high-quality programs, and they’re not cheap — running at least $8,000-$10,000 per child per year.

It’s also unclear whether targeting 3- and 4-year-olds starts early enough, with scientists continuing to discover how much the experiences of infants and toddlers shape how they learn later.

But that hasn’t slowed the desire to achieve the kind of life success that the Perry participants continue to enjoy, seemingly from a two-year, 2.5-hour-a-week-day program they attended more than five decades ago.

Incremental approach

Unlike New York City, which plunged into universal preschool this fall, enrolling about 50,000 new students in the space of a year, Seattle would move more slowly.

One of the measures on the ballot, backed by the City Council and the mayor, calls for a four-year, $58 million demonstration project that would serve just a few hundred 3- and 4-year-olds in the first year, and a total of only 2,000 four years later.

Those children would spend six hours a day in class from September through June. Parents would pay on a sliding scale, with the poorest children attending for free, and subsidies for the rest.

Families could opt for longer days and a full year, but at their own expense.

Tim Burgess, Seattle City Council president, said such an incremental approach would allow time to work out kinks before asking voters to pay even more to make preschool affordable to all over the next 20 years.

“We’re going to focus on quality, not quantity, to make sure that we get the quality right,” he said.

The second, competing measure is broader — and while its backers wanted it to be complementary to the city’s initiative, they lost that bid in court. Voters will have to choose between the two.

Backed by many child-care workers and their unions, it calls for more taxpayer support for preschool as well as care for younger children, but the timetable is unclear. It also would expand training for all child-care workers, not just those who teach 3- and 4-year-olds, and sets a goal of ensuring that families pay no more than 10 percent of their income on early learning programs.

It also mandates that all child-care and preschool teachers make at least $15 an hour sooner than the citywide increase to the minimum wage would rise to that level. Under the city’s preschool ballot proposal, head teachers would make even more — as much as kindergarten teachers in public elementary schools.

With either measure, the city would move faster than the rest of the state. State legislators are expanding state support for preschool, too, but only for low-income families.

In fashioning their proposals, both looked at research that underscores the importance of early learning.

The City Council studied programs with strong track records, such as the ones in Boston and Tulsa where research has shown boosts of 4-12 months in preschoolers’ literacy and math skills.

None of the newer programs is as intensive or expensive as Perry — few think that would be practical these days.

The city built its proposal on the key features that researchers see as essential to success, at a lower cost: Strong teacher training, a requirement for lead teachers to have bachelor’s degrees, paying those teachers as much as they would make in the public schools, a proven curriculum, a six-hour day, and an adult-child ratio of no more than 1:10.

Both plans also would have one major difference from places like Boston and Tulsa: Seattle’s school district will be a minor player, at least at first, with a wide variety of community groups providing preschool classes. In many other cities, the school district is the sole or main pre-K provider.

Value questioned

One of the best-known critics of universal preschool is Russ Whitehurst, a developmental psychologist with the Brookings Institution who argues that the rhetoric about preschool’s value outstrips what the evidence shows.

While studies make a good case for preschool’s benefits for low-income children, for example, he says he isn’t convinced it’s a wise public investment to provide free preschool for all. He also points out the academic fade-out that has been documented in a number of places.

Others worry that the elementary-school curriculum will be pushed down into preschool, which may do more harm than good if preschoolers just learn concrete skills such as how to walk in straight lines, or how to recognize letters.

“You may learn to ‘do school,’ but that doesn’t mean you’ve learned anything that will help you in school,” said Dale Farran, a professor of education and psychology at Vanderbilt University. “If we don’t have a better vision about how young children learn, then preschools will devolve into training programs rather than learning programs.”

If Seattle goes forward, the biggest challenges would come after the election, in creating and maintaining high quality in programs spread throughout the city.

Success is not guaranteed.

But the dream is the same as Weikart’s Perry Preschool — to help all children learn, improving their lives and, as in his school district, the community.

Bette Hyde, head of the state’s early learning department, says that’s why, when she was superintendent in Bremerton years ago, she started one of the state’s first preschool-school district collaborations.

She and the teachers were tired of being able to accurately predict, on the very first day of kindergarten, which children would succeed and which would flounder.

“We just thought, that is not right,” she said. “We have to do something about that.”

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com