Seattle City Council President Tim Burgess is in Washington, D.C. today at the White House Conference on Early Learning. He argues that doing more to invest in this citys children will produce huge dividends.
  • City of Seattle
  • Seattle City Council President Tim Burgess (upper left) is in Washington, D.C. today at the White House Conference on Early Learning. He argues that doing more to invest in this city's children "will produce huge dividends."

Brain scientists, doctors, nurses, criminologists, economists, school principals, and teachers all agree that investing early—very early—in our children makes sense and will produce huge dividends for all of us.

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Smart investments in our kids from birth to age five are proven to reduce poverty, reduce criminal behavior, improve education achievement, and lead to better health and higher wage earning power.

I’m in Washington, D. C. today, along with Mayor Ed Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine, at the White House Summit on Early Learning. We are learning about ongoing programs in other cities and new federal grant opportunities. This afternoon, President Obama will announce a new initiative—Invest in US—aimed at bringing educators, elected officials, business leaders and philanthropists together to invest wisely in America’s youngest children.

The facts about child poverty are deplorable.

About 40 percent of black children under the age of 18 in Seattle live in poverty. It’s 25 percent for Hispanic children. It’s only six percent for white kids.

When children grow up in poverty they are more likely to be poor as adults, receive less education, and become parents too early in life. Persistent poverty tears at our social fabric and weakens our city.

As we’ve been discussing here at the White House Summit, the single most important step we can take is to invest early in our children so they have a strong and fair start.

Research at the University of Washington’s I-LABS has established that a child’s brain is 85 percent developed by the time he or she reaches age three. This isn’t knowledge content, but the all-important neural pathways our brains need to reach our full potential.

Other research shows that children from low-income families are exposed to an average of 13 million words by the time they reach age four; children from middle class families are exposed to 45 million words. This vocabulary deficit is one of the key reasons so many kids enter kindergarten already behind. A child who enters kindergarten already behind has a very, very steep and difficult path ahead of her.

But we can put kids on a different path. Here are three examples of proven and effective efforts that can make a profound difference for our children.


Lisa is a specially trained public health nurse in Seattle who spends her time visiting the homes of low-income, first-time moms through a program called the Nurse Family Partnership. Lisa is assigned to moms who volunteer to participate beginning early in their pregnancy.

She visits the mom throughout her pregnancy and continues with these visits at least twice a month—sometimes more—until the child reaches age two.

Here’s what Lisa told me when I asked her why she does this work: “All mothers deserve the opportunity to parent effectively and to be a bright force in the lives of their children, their families, and their communities. Mothers change our world one child at a time. When I work with a mother . . . I inspire her to believe in herself and her abilities in spite of her history.”

Lisa’s work pays off.

Decades of longitudinal research shows that the Nurse Family Partnership results in better pregnancy outcomes, better child health, and fewer emergency room visits. It also results in lower incidents of child neglect and abuse, lower levels of criminal justice system involvement by the mom and the child, higher levels of education achievement and a much greater likelihood that the mother and child will escape poverty.
The Nurse Family Partnership works.

Three years ago Seattle became only the fourth major U.S. city to fully fund this highly effective anti-poverty program so that every qualified mom who wants to participate can do so. But that’s not the case in the rest of Washington State, where only about 12 percent of the eligible families can benefit from the Nurse Family Partnership. The State legislature should follow Seattle’s lead and fully fund the Nurse Family Partnership.


Carol is an extremely dedicated United Way worker who understands the importance of early interventions. She oversees the Parent Child Home Program, an effort that sends specially trained workers, twice a week, into the homes of low-income families to equip parents with the skills they need to prepare their two- and three-year-olds to learn.

Carol’s workers bring a book that they read to the child and parent, modeling good reading habits, and then they leave the book. They return later in the week with a toy that’s related to the story.

Children who participate in the Parent Child Home Program do amazingly well compared to their peers—better pre-kindergarten and kindergarten preparedness, better reading and math scores in the elementary grades, significantly lower enrollment in special education classes, and high school graduation rates 55 percent higher than their peers who did not participate.

One study in New York City showed that the Parent Child Home Program saved as much as $210,000 per child in reduced costs down the road.

It’s a proven program that changes lives, yet about only half of the families that qualify for the Parent Child Home Program are currently reached in Seattle. We should place a higher priority on funding this highly effective program.


Dominique earned a master’s degree in early childhood education and directs a preschool program for the Children’s Home Society of Washington on South Genesee Street.

She believes in kids and her work changes lives. Dominique wants the children of Seattle to enter kindergarten ready to learn. And that’s important because Seattle, like most American cities, has a devastating opportunity gap when kids fall behind academically.

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Nearly a quarter of all schoolchildren in Seattle Public Schools can’t read at grade level in the third grade, including almost half of our African American children. Not reading at grade level in the third grade is a very strong predictor that a child won’t graduate from high school.

Thousands of Seattle children are not enrolled in pre-kindergarten programs. Many of those who are do not receive the quality of instruction needed to produce the best outcomes. Nationally, as many as 70 percent of kids enrolled in preschool are in low-quality programs.

This quality gap can be closed by ensuring that evidence-based preschool practices are adopted to produce the best outcomes: well-qualified and well-paid teachers, a sufficient number of days and hours of classroom time for the kids, a low student-to-teacher ratio, vigorous parent involvement, and curricula that support the whole child, including play-based learning and development of social-emotional skills.

Compared to their peers, kids who attend high-quality preschool:

- Enter kindergarten better able to learn and with stronger “executive function” skills, like knowing how to perform tasks, play well with the other kids, and follow directions.

- Have higher graduation rates from high school and lower rates of teen pregnancy.

- Have higher college entrance and graduation rates.

- Earn more as adults and have better health.

High quality preschool works and that’s why Seattle voters overwhelmingly approved the Seattle Preschool Plan (Proposition 1-B) on the November ballot. Fourteen new classrooms—just the beginning of this exciting program—will open in September.

Lisa, Carol and Dominique have something in common. They all believe our children can learn, thrive, and lead productive lives regardless of family circumstances, where they live, or the color of their skin. I wholeheartedly agree with them.

The national conversation about investing early is moving forward and Seattle is leading the way by creating a political environment and a city where kids matter. Where we give every child a strong and fair start. Where we close achievement gaps. Where we eliminate poverty.

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