THROW YOUR HANDS IN THE AIR and wave em like universal pre-k should be standard
  • Dan Nolte/Used with permission
  • THROW YOUR HANDS IN THE AIR and wave 'em like universal pre-k should be standard

We'll probably spend most of the year talking about universal preschool. Everyone wants to know how we're going to pay for it, where the kids are going to fit, and if we can really make it work. Goldy wrote a lot about the importance of making an investment in our kids, and even the mayor is committed to the cause.

Last week, city council members Tim Burgess, Sally Bagshaw, and Bruce Harrell took a trip to the east coast with members of Seattle Public Schools and other key political figures to find out how universal pre-k is working in New Jersey, Boston, and Washington, D.C.

I met with Council President Burgess on Wednesday to talk about how it went. Here are the three most important things they found out:

  • Burgess said, "The numbers show that access to high quality preschool dramatically increases academic performance later in life, better health, higher paying jobs, lower rates of criminal behavior, stronger development of social skills, and better cognitive development. Lack of universal preschool overlaps with income inequality, crime policies, and long-term economic instability." In New Jersey, educators saw an increase in executive function (kids figuring out how to plan things), more engagement in critical thinking, and described most of their students as having a sense of ownership about their work. This is a big deal—universal preschool helps our tiny citizens feel like more engaged citizens when they grow up.

  • Over a period of 5 years, New Jersey paid for teachers to go back to school and get degrees in early childhood education. Like, paid their full tuition. We plan to do the same. It's helpful for teachers to stay on top of useful and emerging techniques to use in the classroom, but it also helps the state set and live up to the high quality care they want to provide. When I asked Burgess how current preschool providers would be affected by the high-quality standards, he said, "We're not setting up a punitive system. We're setting a high bar for education, but we'll help everyone get there, including the teachers."

    NO, REALLY    Ive got this, Mayor Murray
    • Dan Nolte/Used with permission
    • NO, REALLY I've got this, Mayor Murray

    What does high quality care look like, anyway? New Jersey uses a "plan, do, review" approach. Classrooms are usually set up with multiple project spaces (a reading area, a block area, a studio area), and the teachers ask the students what they want to do each day. While the students are doing their selected activity, teachers ask them questions ("What would happen if I moved this block here?") and then go over the results, emphasizing critical thinking, planning, and personal agency. Students in the Boston preschool programs performed so well that there was a push-up factor forcing academic changes in the rest of the K-3rd grade system. High quality preschool was so effective it changed the way the rest of the school had to be taught!

  • Right now, the city is evaluating the cost. April is going to be busy as they finalize a ballot measure, and there will be a price tag announced in May. Council members are pushing for 100% coverage for the approximately 4,000 children living with poverty, and a sliding scale that would make universal preschool attractive to middle-class families and the remaining 8,000 preschool-aged kids. The mixed method delivery will help—preschool programs would be part of Seattle schools where there is space, but independent non-profits, the YMCA, and existing preschool providers would all be considered as the programs are implemented and expanded. "It's going to be a heavy lift for tax payers," Burgess said, "but the return in savings on social services and criminal justice is about $3-$5 for every dollar spent." What about people who might be reluctant to pay the cost because they don't have kids in the school system, or have kids at all? "Well you don't use the fire department every year but you sure pay for it."

More than anything, council member Burgess wants to sway people who might be on the fence about this issue, and I'm trying to figure out why people are on the fence to begin with. This is one of the smartest cities in the nation — access to quality education should be a core value.