Seattle City Council To Consider Universal Preschool Proposal

Aug 22, 2013

The city of Seattle would create a plan to let all children attend preschool for free or on a sliding scale under a resolution proposed by City Councilman Tim Burgess.

Decades of research have demonstrated the value of high-quality preschool in preparing children for school. Studies show that kids who already have basic academic and social skills when they start kindergarten tend to do much better not only in kindergarten, but throughout their academic careers.

Burgess said the lack of affordable preschool in the region is hurting kids long-term. "Almost a quarter of our children in Seattle Public Schools are not reading at grade level in the third grade. And that is a very strong indicator that they will not graduate from high school," Burgess said.

The data is worse for African-American third graders.

Last year, the state test showed that not even half were reading at grade level. Those numbers haven't changed much in decades, Burgess said. "And what the evidence shows now is that if we invest early, well before kindergarten, we are going to reap huge benefits for the kids, for their families, and for the city as a whole."

Some low-income families in Seattle already get subsidized preschool from the city or state. But waiting lists are long, and Washington has been found to offer relatively few subsidized preschool slots compared to other states.

Burgess proposes that the city council develop an ambitious plan to make preschool affordable for all Seattle children.

He envisions funding a mix of public and private options for families, with enrollment optional.

Preschool would be free for families earning 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level or less. Families that earn more would pay on a sliding scale.

How much will that cost the city? "A lot," Burgess said.

He didn't have an estimate, but Joel Ryan, the executive director of the Washington State Association of Head Start and Early Child Education and Assistance Program, pointed to similar universal preschool programs in other cities, such as Boston and Chicago.

"Model programs are typically about $10,000 to $15,000 per child per year," Ryan said.

While Burgess doesn’t have a proposal for how to fund universal preschool in Seattle, he said a new property tax levy might be one route.

Burgess said his resolution is aimed at starting that research and planning process to figure out how to make it all work.

Ryan said after having 750 seats cut from Head Start in Washington this year, he’s excited at the possibility of Seattle offering affordable preschool for all kids. "It has the potential to be a real game-changer," Ryan said.

First the resolution needs to pass muster with the city council. Burgess said his colleagues are supportive so far.

He will introduce the resolution to them officially at the Government Performance and Finance Committee on  September 4.