The First Tests
Three Hurdles to Universal Preschool in Seattle
It was kinda-sorta amazing watching the Seattle City Council's September 4 meeting on Council Member Tim Burgess's proposal to make high-quality preschool available and affordable to all of Seattle's 3- and 4-year-old children. Don't get me wrong—the meeting was as boring as any council meeting. But the fact that there is now a consensus that Seattle can no longer afford to wait on the legislature to get its shit together and properly fund early learning is both exciting and encouraging.
Anybody who reads The Stranger knows that we can be a bit obsessive about this issue—in fact, it's become a litmus test in our election endorsements. Why? Because high-quality early learning is the only education reform that everybody agrees works (higher academic performance, less truancy, and fewer dropouts). And we mean everybody. Even Republicans. The legislature just doesn't have the collective will and/or the balls to raise the taxes necessary to pay for it.
Which is why we here in Seattle have to do it ourselves.
And that's what makes Burgess's leadership so important. Mayor Mike McGinn has highlighted universal preschool as a second-term priority, but Burgess represents the "serious" wing of the council. And so the other serious people (you know, editorial boards, muni leagues, chambers of commerce) are going to have a tough time arguing that this is an investment we can't afford.
The recommendations of the legislature's bipartisan Early Learning Technical Workgroup (ELTW) provide a blueprint for a citywide program, but what are the obstacles to implementing the state's first municipal universal preschool program?
Raising the Money
San Francisco, with a population about a third larger than Seattle, spends about $80 million a year funding its preschool program. So figure about $50 million or so to run a similar program here.
The ELTW's recommendations call for serving all 3- and 4-year-olds from families with income up to 250 percent of the federal poverty level, a formula that would have set a cutoff of $58,850 for a family of four in 2013. But because high-quality preschool is often too expensive for middle-class families, Burgess is proposing a sliding-scale fee schedule to make quality preschool affordable for all our families, regardless of income level. The generosity of our sliding scale will determine the final cost.
As to how to fund it, Burgess promises that "every option will be explored," but the truth is, there aren't that many revenue options. So voters should likely expect a dedicated property tax levy to go to the ballot, possibly as soon as November 2014.
Paying Teachers Enough
At last week's hearing, all of the witnesses testified to the importance of funding only high-quality programs. That means additional health and family resources for those who need it. But it also means classrooms run by trained and certified professionals. "The quality of the teacher is the single most important variable," testified Seattle School Board director Michael DeBell.
ELTW's recommendations call for lead teachers to have BA degrees in early childhood education or a related field. But as Council Member Mike O'Brien repeatedly pointed out, preschool teachers often don't make a living wage. This results in high turnover and poor-quality classrooms.
So if our program is to succeed, teachers must be paid an amount commensurate with the high level of training, certification, and competency we are demanding. Burgess believes that rigorous credentialing might address the compensation issue, but says the council will explore establishing minimum pay standards.
DeBell emphasized that the Seattle School District is "not interested in becoming a dominant provider" of classrooms. That is because, thanks to ballooning enrollment (and the stupidly misguided rounds of school closures during DeBell's tenure), the district simply does not have the space to house thousands of preschoolers. That means a majority of our children will be enrolled in programs run by independent providers—likely (but not necessarily exclusively) not-for-profit.
It will take years to build and outfit facilities capable of handling about 7,000 additional preschoolers a year, so Seattle's program would take a number of years to phase in, starting with the neediest children first.
But it will be worth the wait to overcome these obstacles. For if we do it here, surrounding cities will surely follow. And once voters throughout the rest of the state see our children benefiting from high-quality preschool, perhaps they'll finally push their own legislators to (gasp) raise the taxes necessary to pay for the services they need.