The city council hosted national experts on pre-kindergarten education this morning, getting an earful about the benefits of universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds. The council's Education and Governance committee, headed up by council president Tim Burgess, is looking at options to pay for a voluntary universal pre-K program for Seattle kids; it's unclear whether funding that program would require a ballot measure or if it could be paid for through the city's general fund. 

Burgess predicts paying for preschool for all (or at least many—the program will be voluntary) of the city's 12,000-plus three- and four-year-olds, only about two-thirds of whom are currently in preschool, will require a ballot initiative (Seattle's preferred way of paying for critical needs like parks, libraries, early-childhood education, and now, possibly, preschool).

"It is a significant amount of money," Burgess says, although he adds that he doesn't know exactly how much. "One question is, could we start in year one or year two with just general fund money?"

Dr. Hiro Yoshikawa, from NYU, pointed to a study of universally available preschool in Tulsa, OK that showed that the city saved $3 for every dollar it spent on preschool—a program NPR's show Planet Money highlighted in its show "Why Preschool Can Save the World" last year. 

"When you look at that facts in every city in the U.S. and then you look at the powerful combination of the neuroscientific and the economic evidence that brain architecture is built in the first years of life… if you don’t build the foundational skills in the first years of entry, you lose the ability of children to obtain basic skills," Yoshikawa said. 

Among the researchers' conclusions: 

• Four-year-olds with a year of preschool start kindergarten a third of a year more advanced, in educational terms, than students of the same age who didn't go to preschool; 

• Head Start and pre-K programs that are sponsored by the city or state, as opposed to private interests, are only of "average" quality, and "only [a] small minority of programs [are] of excellent quality"; 

• High-quality preschool has a good impact on students of all socioeconomic backgrounds, but particularly on the poorest students, those who speak English as a second language, and those with special needs; 

Given that all the stats show that universal pre-K is, well, universally useful, why not make it mandatory, like elementary school? Burgess says that's still a bridge too far. "The state makes K-12 compulsory. That is not under consideration. The state’s definition of basic education does not include preschool at this time. I think it should, but it does not." 

Most of the kids who aren't enrolled in preschool now, unsurprisingly, are lower-income or foreign-born.

Burgess says the city will "most likely start with mixed delivery from the beginning"—that is, some public preschools, some private, and some home-based—while the program ramps up. 

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