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What to expect from Seattle’s universal pre-k program

Is pre-k education a sound investment? With the launch of its new (eventually) citywide program, Seattle is about to find out. Credit: Flickr user woodleywonderworks

Early childhood education became a national conversation when President Obama stood before Congress in his 2013 State of the Union and proclaimed it “one of the best investments we can make.” Mayor Ed Murray recently introduced his implementation plan for Seattle’s universal pre-k program, which the Seattle  City Council’s Education and Governance Committee approved Wednesday. If the full council approves the plan next Monday, what can we expect to see come September and what issues may complicate the program?

Council President Tim Burgess — Murray calls him the “godfather of pre-k” — said universal pre-k in Seattle is important because, upon starting grade school, “many children are already behind. They have a steep mountain to climb to catch up.” He added, “It’s the right thing for kids.”

While most in Seattle’s education world support the idea of a pre-k program, some members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents family child care providers, along with some preschool workers and members of the Seattle school board, are concerned there isn’t enough space or funding, the program is too narrow in scope and it doesn’t provide enough for the poorest populations.

Dueling propositions

“There is nothing more morally important that I will do as Mayor in the next four years than creating a high quality preschool program for three- and four-year-olds in Seattle,” said Mayor Murray when he introduced his action plan for a universal pre-k pilot last spring.

The plan’s introduction was not without its hiccups. When negotiations between Murray and the unions (SEIU 925 and American Federation of Teachers-Washington) broke down, the unions decided to run their own pre-k initiative. When a lower Washington court ruled that both programs could not be enacted, voters were forced to decide, yes or no, if they wanted a pre-k program for Seattle, and then, if they did, to choose between the mayor’s approach (Proposition 1B) and the rival initiative (Proposition 1A).

1B won in a landslide.

What the data tell us about the value of preschool

The confidence of President Obama and Mayor Murray in the importance of early childhood education is based on the argument that children who don’t get any pre-k education are at a lifelong disadvantage compared to those who do. Although long-term data are rare, most research points to at least an initial advantage.

“As we all know,” said Professor Hirokazu Yoshikawa of New York University in a briefing to the Seattle City Council, “achievement gaps in education can be stubborn.” While there is certainly a race-based achievement gap, the most pronounced disparities are between income gaps, two in particular. There’s a significant achievement gap between children from the poorest families and those in the middle class, and a similar gap between those middle class kids and children from the wealthiest families.

Hirokazu argued that the reading achievement gap is immediately apparent when children enter school, and that it changes only slightly as students grow older. The gaps, at kindergarten age, correlate pretty directly with who did or did not attend a preschool program. Only about 40 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line (FPL) attended preschool in 2011 compared to 70 percent of the more underprivileged children at 400 percent or more of the FPL. (A family of four making $48,500 a year is at 200 percent of the FPL; a family of four making $97,000 a year is at 400 percent of the FPL.)

Simply attending preschool may not be enough though. That preschool, said Hirokazu, needs to be high quality, with top notch teachers, low student-teacher ratios, solid emotional support and engagement, etc. Three-quarters of children at or below 200 percent FPL attended publicly funded programs; of the children at or above 400 percent FPL, more than three-quarters attended private preschools. While there are certainly high quality public preschools, the freedom to opt for a private one suggests a higher likelihood of finding that quality.

The “fade-out” phenomenon

There is not enough data to say conclusively that early education leads to success later in life. “We have to wait a long time for the kids to grow up,” said Hirokazu. The biggest concern among pre-school advocates is the “fade-out” phenomenon. While no one seems to argue against the initial benefits of preschool, a study of the federally-funded Head Start preschool program showed only modest to minimal differences between third-graders who had attended preschool and those who had not. The cause of fade-out is unknown. Is it the fault of the preschool? The grade school? The study itself?

Washington Post education columnist, Valerie Strauss suggests that Head Start itself may the problem. “Head Start,” she wrote, “could produce larger gains if the program was better focused and made other improvements.”

Tim Burgess.

For his part, Tim Burgess is “not particularly concerned about the fade-out.” He points to Boston’s successful city-wide preschool, which “has shown that kids who leave their high quality preschool program, are ready to learn and are on course.”

Burgess and Murray visited Boston last spring. The city, roughly the same size as Seattle, provides a template for how to scale preschool. At a city-wide level, said Hirokazu, “pre-school systems were superior in quality to the array of community-based and publicly funded preschool available prior to the expansion of the [Boston’s] programs.”Credit Boston’s mandatory, across-the-board quality checks and minimum requirements for teachers.

According to Hirokazu’s data, first year data from Boston showed that its program gave students an additional half to full year of learning compared to children from other pre-schools. “Boston found that they could not keep up with those kids in kindergarten,” said Burgess. “They were so well prepared.”

Bringing universal pre-k to Seattle

Seattle’s preschool program, funded by the voter-approved $58 million levy, will begin as a pilot next September, opening to only 14 classrooms. “I would have loved to open it to all 12,800 three- and four-year-olds,” said Burgess, “but that’s not physically possible.” The program will expand to 39 classrooms in 2016, 70 classrooms in ’17, and 100 in ’18.

The program will serve three- and four-year-olds exclusively, although, for now, only three-year-olds from families earning 300 percent or less of Federal Poverty Line will be admitted. For those families pre-k will be free; for families above 300 percent, tuition will function on a sliding scale.

The eventual goal, as the name suggests, is universal pre-k for all families. But in the first years, the pilot program will focus on children from poorer neighborhoods and those populations that stand to gain the most from a pre-k program.

The city will contract with already functioning preschools. Providers can apply to receive funding if they meet the city’s requirements. They need to be licensed by the Washington State Department of Early learning, meet minimum quality levels through Washington’s Early Achievers rating system and operate two or more classrooms. Priority will be given to schools that are located near under-achieving public elementary schools, target low-income families and have the highest quality rating through Early Achievers.

By applying, the contracted schools are agreeing to comply with some city mandates. The length of the school day would be six hours, and class sizes would be restricted to 20 children at a 10-1 student-teacher ratio. Contracted schools would also have to serve an as yet undefined number of kids who qualify for Head Start, free or reduced lunch and Washington’s Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP).

Arguably, the largest mandates concern teacher qualifications and curriculum. The Seattle preschool program will pay preschool teachers a K-12 wage, but require them to have at least a bachelor’s degree, attend trainings and meet certain competency requirements along the way. Teachers with 10 years of combined experience and education, but no bachelor’s degree may apply for a waiver. Teachers who don’t meet the education requirements can get some tuition assistance.

Perhaps the linchpin of the whole program is ensuring the preschools are “quality” programs. Part of that means executing what the city determines to be a quality curriculum, or as the implementation plan reads: “Evidence-based curricula that provide frameworks for creating and nurturing constructivist and culturally responsive environments for children to learn and thrive.”

The real details of the curricula haven’t been outlined yet, but there will be an emphasis on coaching teachers to help them improve. Another focus will be training parents on “evidence-based practices.” The city will work with providers in the program’s first year to figure out exactly what that training will look like.

Worries about bureaucracy, fairness and space

Sandra Nelson is the interim director at Primm ABC Child Care Center near Seward Park. Rrimm runs an ECEAP classroom and would therefore be a good candidate for pre-k funding. “Our concern,” she said, “is the fact that we are already involved in a program that has a lot of rules and requirements and procedures.”

ECEAP and Head Start already provide free preschool classrooms for families who qualify. Why should Seattle step in and add another program on top? “The various evaluations of Head Start frankly have been mixed,” said Burgess. “ECEAP has done better … but it’s not universal. Our motivation is to step in and fill that void.” (ECEAP and Head Start provide free education for children in families up to 110 percent of the FPL; Seattle’s pre-k program goes up to 300 percent.)

Tiny Tots, which has six locations in south Seattle, also runs an ECEAP classroom. Director of Health and Family Services, Jacqueline Boles says she doesn’t know enough yet about the Seattle program, but the school does need help filling voids. “We are taking care of kids that need a lot,” she said. “But we don’t have the resources to provide that.”

Nelson at Primm would take the money, but she’s concerned about having enough space. “One of the questions we’ve asked the city is what does this number 20 mean?” she said. “If it’s 20 in a class, we wouldn’t have the space for that.”

“This is one of the reasons we’re going slow,” said Burgess. “In the first couple of years, I don’t think space is going to be an issue.” $8.5 million has been set aside for expanding and improving facilities, but as the program grows to 100 classrooms and more, he added, “we’re going to have to get creative.”

SEIU’s criticism of the city’s preschool program, which the union has maintained since the vote last November, is the heavy city involvement. “The mayor’s plan is well intentioned,” said SEIU Local 925 president Karen Hart, but it’s “one size fits all.”

Proponents of SEIU’s 1A alternative argued during the campaign that the top down curriculum would kill creativity. “City Hall’s plan restricts the choice of parents by creating only a small number of classrooms with rigid curriculum guidelines for the whole city,” read the statement against 1B on the November 2014 ballot. “City Hall’s plan drives out experienced teachers … by placing new burdensome regulations on caregivers.”

Jacqueline Boles from Tiny Tots was more pragmatic. ” We’ve been partners with the city for 35 years,” she said. “If they’re offering, we’d be interested. We need the money. They just need to make sure it’s fair and that all the money doesn’t go to the rich people up north.”

There’s a lot of need in Boles’ 98118 neighborhood. “We take care of foster children, high-risk, homeless, PTSD, grandmothers raising children, parents in prison, the list can go on and on and on,” she said. “Preschool gives them a chance at life. Starts them with their building blocks. They can’t succeed without them.”

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