County's proposed Best Starts for Kids levy, explained

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King County Executive Dow Constantine meets with a preschooler, during a fact-finding tour of Boston and New Jersey cities regarding universal preschool models.

According to neurologists, fully 85 percent of human brain growth is completed during the first three years of life. It’s a recognition that's driving a new King County initiative, Best Starts for Kids, which aims to ensure all children are given opportunities to fulfill their cognitive potential, starting at birth. To this end, the county council has voted to place a $350 million property-tax levy on the November 3, 2015, ballot to launch and support the initiative for six years.

Despite the price tag, County Executive Dow Constantine argues the levy represents a net economic win for the county. At a panel discussion at Northeastern University-Seattle last week, Constantine said that King County spends almost three-quarters of its general fund on the criminal justice system. Research has shown that the downstream costs of adult crime, not to mention the public cost of treating adult mental illness and addiction, can be greatly reduced by focusing on early childhood development. Such investments are also “a moral imperative” in view of  inequalities in educational, social, and financial opportunity available to families today, he added.

Proponents of the levy argue that it will expand and strengthen programs that employ proven or scientifically promising approaches for childhood development, producing healthier and more productive students and members of the community.

Fifty percent of levy funding would focus on programs for children from birth through age five, based on a framework of key developmental milestones and optimal caregiver strategies created by the UW’s Institute of Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS).

These early years mark a critically important stage in brain development, said panelist Dr. Michelle Barnes, a member of the Early Childhood Education faculty at Everett Community College. In the first three years of life, a child's brain builds more than three-quarters of its sensory, language, and executive function potential. “Every event creates or strengthens a pathway” in these areas during these years, when neural connections are being established at the rate of 700 per second. After age three, as the brain continues to develop, its efficiency increases as weak and disused synaptic connections are pruned out.

In these ways, early positive and negative experiences physiologically limit or expand each child’s potential for future success. Adverse childhood experiences change the architecture of the brain in ways that lead to future behavior problems, but nurturing investments during those years “make a positive difference that cannot be matched by interventions later in life,” Barnes said.

The work of Nobel-winning economist James Heckman supports this contention – see below for Heckman’s chart comparing the rates of return-on-investment in early vs. later years:

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Nobel-winning economist James Heckman graphs the high economic returns of strengthening human development in the earliest years.

Ten percent of  Best Starts funding would help make daily life safer and healthier for families with kids. Positive interactions with supportive adults in the community must be part of what happens during the first five years, said panelist Michael Brown, VP of Community Leadership at The Seattle Foundation. In addition, because their homes have a huge impact on their readiness for school, it’s essential for children to have safe surroundings, a roof over their heads. Preventing domestic violence and homelessness is high on this part of the agenda. Brown welcomed the collaborative approach planned for Best Starts for Kids – rather than impose strategies on a top-down basis, the county would partner with existing community networks to achieve initiative goals.

Thirty-five percent of funding would support youth beyond their early years, focusing on youngsters age 6 through 24. By offering help and interventions as necessary during this period, Constantine said, developmental delays are less likely to become developmental disabilities. Further, youth will be screened throughout adolescence for the mental health and addiction problems that challenge adults left behind as kids. Parents, teachers, and community leaders will have access to resources that will help them recognize the signs and respond effectively, he added.

It's essential to invest on a “cradle to career” basis to keep kids from slipping through the cracks as they get older, said panelist Maud Daudon, Chamber of Commerce CEO and chair of the Washington Student Achievement Council. “We need every available person in the pipeline and ready to work,” she said. As things stand, “we keep having to import people to work in the region's burgeoning economy because our own kids' graduation rates and levels of achievement are not as good as they could be.” The initiative will address the shortage of well-prepared local workers, complementing Seattle’s universal pre-K project, the legislature’s recent funding boost for statewide early education and the College-Bound Scholarship program, which has lifted high school graduation rates from 50 to 90 percent statewide among 8th-graders who sign up,said Daudon.

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Best Starts for Kids panel August 11, 2015. Panelists: Dow Constantine, King County Exec; Maud Daudon, President/CEO Seattle Chamber of Commerce; Dr. Michelle Barnes (with mic), Early Childhood Education faculty, Everett CC; Michael Brown, VP for Community Leadership, Seattle Foundation.

The remaining five percent would be set aside for collecting data, assessing outcomes and improving programs.

For the $350 million levy, county property-owners would pay 14 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value annually. For the average King County home-owner, this would total about $56 per year.

Constantine wrapped up his presentation at the panel by citing the “scientific evidence that we can turn the tide” on the heavy stresses currently on public budgets. Further, blessed as the region is with an economy on the rise, it would be “immoral as well as unsustainable” not to take steps that will improve children's lives, and reduce the downstream costs of adult mental illness, substance abuse and crime.

Daudon expressed strong optimism about public support for the levy: “This is not a community that will leave kids behind,” she said. Barnes added that we should think not only about future workers but also about the future of our society and culture. We’re “stewards of future generations,” she said, inb that what we do to help families thrive today will carry far into the future.

  

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