Implementing universal Seattle-wide high-quality preschool isn't really a controversial topic within city hall; both the mayor and the council have voiced their unanimous support. But how to fund it, and to what extent, may make for a more contentious debate.

That's why the early learning "gap analysis" (pdf) released today will prove so crucial to the council's deliberations, as it fleshes out the scope of the challenge the city faces. According to the report, there are currently about 12,280 three and four year olds living in Seattle, of which between 27 percent and 37 percent are not enrolled in any sort of formal preschool or child care program. The report makes no effort to speculate on the quality of existing programs, but it seems likely that many would not meet the "high quality" standard the council will ultimately adopt.

And the enrollment disparity based on income appears to be as pronounced as one might expect. The report estimates that 71 percent of children in families above 400 percent of the federal poverty line are enrolled in nursery or preschool, compared to only 54 percent those in low-income families below 200 percent of the poverty line. Likewise, 72 percent of children living north of the Ship Canal are enrolled in preschool, compared to 58 percent in Central and Southeast Seattle, and only 48 percent in Southwest Seattle. And this enrollment disparity persists despite the funding of about 2,000 seats aimed at low-income children via federal Head Start, state ECEAP, and city Step Ahead programs.

Wait lists for otherwise qualified children at subsidized early learning centers often equal more than half their total capacity. So there is clearly a lot of unmet demand.

So how many children would a Seattle universal preschool program serve, and what would be the cost to the taxpayers? That's still hard to say, as the data available is anything but firm and the costs will be driven by our definition of "universal." Not every parent would choose to enroll their children in preschool starting at age three, regardless of the cost or quality, and about 2,000 low-income children are already being served by federal, state, and city funded programs, so they should represent little or no additional cost. While the goal is to provide universal access to high quality preschool, there will likely some sort of sliding-scale subsidy based on percentage of the poverty line. How steep we slide that scale, and at what level the full subsidy kicks in will help determine the final price tag on the program.

But don't expect the city to implement preschool on the cheap. The report estimates that current programs cost between $11,300 and $14,700 per student per year, and there isn't much room for a discount. All the current research emphasizes that only high-quality programs return the results proponents tout. More on what "high quality" means, and the results it produces, in a future post.