Seattle City Council president Tim Burgess, the godfather of universal pre-K in Seattle, speaks to the crowd today.
  • Dan Nolte/City of Seattle
  • Seattle City Council president Tim Burgess, the "godfather" of universal pre-K in Seattle, speaks to the crowd today.
Under a hot sun in a little amphitheater at the High Point Center in West Seattle, a collection of politicians and early education advocates gathered late this morning to announce what could, eventually, be the most progressive program the City of Seattle will start this decade: a universal pre-K program for 3- and 4-year-olds. Mayor Ed Murray has said before, and said again today, that implementing a universal pre-K plan would be the most important thing he does as mayor.

Speaking of a "significant achievement gap" among schoolchildren that "falls clearly and unequivocally along lines of race and income," Murray announced a four-year "demonstration project" of universal pre-K, funded by a $58 million property-tax levy. The average cost to homeowners, he said, was $3.61 a month. "Lattes cost more than that," he pointed out. And the "moral cost" of doing nothing is too high, he added.

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So what will this look like? If the city council chooses to send this to the November ballot, and voters approve it, legislation will create a preschool program that starts offering some sliding-scale tuition preschool to Seattle 3- and 4-year-olds at the beginning of the 2015 school year. It phases in like this:

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  • City of Seattle

Given that a recent analysis found that Seattle has more than 12,000 3- and 4-year-olds citywide, as many as 37 percent of whom are not enrolled in preschool, a program offering less than 300 preschool slots in 2015 is clearly less than "universal." Why are we starting out so impossibly small? Council President Tim Burgess, who has shepherded the universal pre-K discussion through council and into the mayor's office (Murray introduced Burgess today as the "godfather" of universal pre-K in Seattle) says it's all about quality.

"Going fast with quantity often leads to low quality," said Burgess, and in this proposal, "we flipped that." While a growing body of evidence shows profound impacts of preschool on children and adults—higher graduation rates, lower criminal behavior, higher earning potential, the list goes on—much of that is only fully realized through "high-quality" preschool programs. Simply, quality matters. After researching other region's pre-K programs, Burgess mentioned, Seattle learned that Boston had to essentially scrap their initial program and start over after an early review showed their quality was too low.

But it's not just the quality issue.

"We also have a significant space problem," Burgess said. It's true—that's been identified repeatedly as one of the clearest hurdles the city will need to address if they want to expand early learning. Where the hell do we put thousands of new preschoolers when the Seattle Public Schools is already overflowing its physical capacity, cramming students into crappy outdoor portables? "We need time to get that ready," said Burgess.

The ultimate, eventual goal of this program is to provide free preschool to all interested 3- and 4-year-old kids whose families make less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level, or just over $47,700 a year for a family of four, and sliding-scale preschool for kids who make more. At the end of this "demonstration" phase, it'll be serving 2,000 kids. Participation is completely voluntary, and it'll be a "mixed-delivery" model in partnership with Seattle Public Schools, meaning some pre-K classes will be in schools and some will be at other community providers.

A breakdown of the costs to families:

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  • City of Seattle

Other details in today's announcement (a PDF of a booklet the city produced about the plan is right here):

• The time frame for meeting the goal of "serving all eligible and interested children" is set at 20 years.

• As you can see above, everyone gets at least some tuition help from the city. That's because mixed-income classrooms are shown to be more effective for kids, and the city wants to encourage people at all income levels to participate in the program.

• The city will contract with organizations that meet their standards—meaning some existing preschools will be eligible for this funding, as well as newly created classrooms in partnership with Seattle Schools.

• Classes will be open five days a week and run six hours a day, with a summer break just like school.

• The curriculum is expected to be play-based—the goal really isn't to get kids headed earlier and earlier into that student meat-grinder thing from Pink Floyd's The Wall.

• The teacher/student ratio is one adult for every 10 kids, with a max class size of 20.

One last note: This will face opposition from voters and activists that goes beyond whining about paying taxes: While Burgess, especially, lauds "evidence-based" models, there are already a lot of questions about what that means and if Seattle agrees. Do alternative-school models, like Montessori and Waldorf preschools count? Will preschoolers have to face standardized tests? (That's a big drama in Texas right now.) How will teachers be evaluated? Parents and teachers are going to get riled up. This will likely extend a lot of the current debates in education down to the preschool level—for better or for worse.

All in all, universal pre-K is a good thing, and while it would be nice if this were a larger initial investment, it's nice to be moving toward something great. High-five, Burgess and Murray!