It was kinda-sorta amazing watching yesterday's Seattle City Council Government Performance and Finance Committee meeting on council member Tim Burgess's proposed resolution (pdf) to make high-quality preschool available and affordable to all of Seattle's three and four 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 broad consensus that Seattle can no longer afford to wait on the legislature to get its shit together and properly fund early learning, is incredibly gratifying and encouraging.
Anybody who knows me knows that I can be a bit obsessive about this issue—in fact, the SECB has pretty much made support for universal preschool a political litmus test over the past couple campaign cycles. Why? Because high-quality early learning is the only education reform that everybody agrees works. And I mean everybody. Even Republicans. The state legislature's Early Learning Technical Workgroup (ELTW) has actually put an immense amount of laudable work into making the case for universal preschool and into defining exactly what a statewide program might look like. And you'd be hard pressed to find a lawmaker from either party willing to publicly refute the ELTW's recommendations. They just don't have the 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 on this so important. There wasn't a council or mayoral candidate we interviewed this year who voiced opposition to universal preschool. In fact, at his campaign kickoff, Mayor Mike McGinn listed universal preschool as a major priority for his second term. 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 the city can't afford.
So, how much will it cost?
Testifying at yesterday's hearing, Carla Bryant of the San Francisco Unified School District testified that her city spends about $80 million a year funding universal preschool for its three and four year olds. That sounds about right. Seattle has about three-quarters the population of San Francisco, and I'd previously figured that it would cost us roughly between $50 million and $80 million a year to implement a program here, depending on our definition of "universal."
The ELTW's recommendations call for free high quality preschool for all three and four year olds from families earning up to 250 percent of the federal poverty line, a formula that would have come to $58,850 for a family of four in 2013. But high quality preschool can be expensive. Robert Butts from the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction warned against losing the "kids in the ditch"—children from families who earn too much to qualify for government funded programs, but too little to afford the $8,000 to $15,000 a year a quality program can cost. That's why Burgess is proposing a sliding-scale fee schedule to make quality preschool affordable for all our families, regardless of income level.
So how much "universal" preschool would cost Seattle taxpayers depends both on the structure of this sliding scale, and our commitment to funding quality. All the presenters at yesterday's hearing emphasized the importance of funding high quality early learning. Kids who require additional family support, like those in the Head Start program, will require higher levels of investment, while those who don't need that support can be funded at a lower level, explained Butts. But the take-home point is that this is not something we want to do on the cheap. We're talking Head Start level classroom programs run by trained and certified professionals combined with additional health and family resources provided to those who need them. "Teacher effectiveness is the key," testified Seattle School District director Michael DeBell. "The quality of the teacher is the single most important variable."
Speaking of which, council member Mike O'Brien—you know, from the progressive (i.e. "non-serious") wing of the council—repeatedly raised the issue of teacher pay. In San Francisco, Bryant explained, salaries of preschool instructors in programs run by the school district (serving about a third of the city's enrolled preschoolers) "mimic those of the district." But preschool instructors employed in programs run by "community based organizations" (CBOs) are generally paid less.
This is an issue that the whole council needs to join O'Brien in caring about, because at least initially, the vast majority of Seattle-funded preschoolers will be enrolled in programs run by CBOs. While enthusiastically endorsing Burgess's proposal, calling it "the best opportunity we have for eliminating the opportunity gap," Seattle School District director Michael DeBell emphasized that the district is "not interested in becoming a dominant provider." That is because, thanks to ballooning enrollment (and the stupidly misguided rounds of school closures conducted during DeBell's tenure), the district simply does not have the space to house an additional 7,000 or so preschoolers.
ELTW's recommendations call for lead teachers to have BA degrees in early childhood education or a related field, or at least a BA degree with demonstrated competence. But preschool teachers are currently notoriously underpaid, often not making a living wage themselves. There is little doubt that preschool programs run within the school district would pay decent wages; the teachers union would see to that. But with the vast majority of city-funded preschoolers likely to be enrolled in CBO-run programs, the council needs to give serious consideration to imposing minimum salary and benefit standards commensurate with the teacher qualifications we'll be demanding. That may be the only way to attract qualified teachers while avoiding the sort of high turnover rates that afflict low-quality programs.
One final comment about DeBell's testimony. DeBell made a point of highlighting the fact that the district has been running a handful of preschool programs within its schools for years, specifically citing the Montessori pre-k program at Graham Hill Elementary in Southeast Seattle. My daughter when through the Graham Hill preschool program more than a decade ago. It was great. We loved it. So it was extremely disappointing to see the district shut down the program this year due to lack of space... a closure of which DeBell appeared to be totally unaware.
The good news is, the annual struggle for survival that Graham Hill preschool parents ultimately lost, may soon be a thing of the past. Support for citywide universal preschool appears to be both broad and deep, and thanks to the prior work of the ELTW a set of well thought out guidelines for implementing a successful program within Seattle already exists. It will take time—due to the lack of existing physical and human infrastructure, Seattle's universal preschool program would have to be gradually phased in over a number of years. And it will take money. Here's hoping that Burgess can provide some effective leadership on that front as well, helping to make a credible argument for raising the taxes necessary to pay for this investment. But if yesterday's preschool lovefest is any indication, I'm feeling pretty damn confident that this can be done.
And as I've previously argued, Seattle-wide universal preschool won't just be good for Seattle's families. If we do it well here, you can be damn sure that cities like Bellevue and Mercer Island and Renton will attempt to follow suit. 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.
Because the point of going it on our own is not to cut out the rest of the state. It is to lead it by example. And that's exactly what I saw at yesterday's council meeting.