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It’s time for universal preschool in Seattle

How bright is the educational future of children in Seattle? Credit: Kent Wang/Flickr

This week, approximately 50,000 aspiring scholars started their school year at one of 95 Seattle public schools spread across our city. Many of these students will receive an exceptional education and graduate from high school prepared for college or career.

Others won’t be so fortunate. Some of the youngest will start needlessly behind — before they even walk through the door of their kindergarten classroom — and it will be extremely difficult for them to catch up.

In fact, when we consider what will likely happen with this year’s class of new kindergartners — based on many years of actual student performance — it is very discouraging.

Imagine 100 new kindergarteners with their little backpacks entering their school for the first time. By the time they reach third grade, about one-fourth of these youngsters will not be reading at grade level, a key indicator of a hard academic road ahead. And, indeed, 23 of them won’t graduate from high school.

It is far worse for our children of color and those kids living in poverty. Out of a sample of 100 children living in poverty who started kindergarten this week, 39 won’t be able to read at grade level in third grade and 27 won’t graduate from high school. Of 100 African American children, 47 won’t read at grade level and 33 won’t graduate. These statistics are stunning, yet this has been the reality for years.

And, it’s not just the kids that suffer. All of us lose when the children of Seattle aren’t educated for the future. The costs we will bear are staggering — higher crime and unemployment, more expensive social services and remedial catch-up courses and the strong likelihood this cycle will keep repeating.

We can spend a great deal of time debating why these statistics are reality for so many kids — poverty, broken families, complacency among civic leaders, failed education systems and on and on. But we can’t avoid or discount the stark reality many of our children face as they start their new year in the schoolhouse. Kids who don’t graduate from high school — or graduate but aren’t prepared for college or technical certification of some kind — face a very bleak future in today’s demanding and dynamic job market.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can change this reality by smartly investing very early in the lives of our children.

Nobel laureate and University of Chicago economist James Heckman documents in his many years of research and in his new book "Giving Kids a Fair Chance" that early investments reap huge benefits for kids and society as a whole. “Early interventions can improve cognitive as well as socio-emotional skills. They promote schooling, reduce crime, foster workforce productivity and reduce teenage pregnancy,” Heckman writes.

Seattle is an emerging leader in making smart investments early in a child’s life. We do it through the Nurse-Family Partnership (NFP), an evidence-based public health initiative that sends specially trained nurses into the homes of low-income, first-time moms. The NFP begins in pregnancy and lasts until the child turns two. The nurses provide medical assistance and parenting tips. The results are strong: better pregnancy outcomes, huge reductions in emergency room visits and incidents of abuse and neglect, stronger education achievements for both mom and child, better economic conditions for the family and greatly reduced criminal justice involvement for both mom and child.

We also invest early through the Parent-Child Home Program, another evidence-based effort that begins when a child reaches age two. Funded through the City’s Families and Education Levy, volunteers who have completed a special training course visit low-income households twice a week and read a children’s book with the child and her mom or dad. This early literacy, parenting and school readiness program establishes habits of reading and helps to prepare youngsters for kindergarten.

But, despite these good efforts, we’re not doing enough to close the academic achievement gap or to address the growing inequity in our city. It’s time Seattle takes a bold step to give all of our kids a fair chance.

That bold step is to implement a voluntary, high-quality, universal preschool program for all of Seattle’s three- and four-year old children. If done right, such an early investment in our kids will pay huge dividends for Seattle — dramatically improved graduation rates, higher wages for those graduates and less crime in our neighborhoods.

Today, thousands of our children are either not enrolled in early learning programs at all (because of cost or insufficient space) or they are enrolled in programs lacking the quality needed to produce the best outcomes. It’s going to take bold leadership to close these two gaps — a gap in access and a gap in quality.

The access gap can be closed by making preschool available to everyone. Let’s make it free for families earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level (about $47,000 for a family of four) and set up an escalating scale of fees for those making more.

The quality gap can be closed by ensuring that evidence-based practices are adopted to produce the best outcomes: well-qualified 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.

Seattle can build on its proud legacy of doing what’s best for our children. We’ve proven that over and over again through the levies we've passed to support education, including the 64 percent voter support to renew our city’s Families and Education Levy in 2011, a measure that doubled the size of the investment, enhanced accountability and outcome measures and introduced competitive awarding of funds.

Implementing high-quality preschool for all of our kids won’t be easy. It’s going to take hard work and significant investment. But, if done well, the benefits far outweigh the costs.

The good news is that what’s best for our children is best for everyone in the city. With universal preschool, all of Seattle’s children will have the opportunity to flourish and we will have a safer city, a smarter workforce and a brighter future for everyone.


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