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Public preschool — and finding enduring fiscal support for it — isn’t child’s play

Amanda Benjamin, assistant director of Creative Kids Learning Center in Seattle, reads with Ngoc-Minh-Ang Nguyen, 4, at the preschool, one of 20 that have joined a city program that offers reduced fees.
Amanda Benjamin, assistant director of Creative Kids Learning Center in Seattle, reads with Ngoc-Minh-Ang Nguyen, 4, at the preschool, one of 20 that have joined a city program that offers reduced fees. (Brenda Iasevoli for The Hechinger Report)
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SEATTLE — One frigid morning, on a playground outside a red modular classroom, a preschooler with wispy blond hair folded her arms across her chest and looked at the ground, the slightest pout forming on her face. “I’m staying out here today,” Ali, 4, said to her father. Hoping to distract her, he kicked a ball. Ali laughed and ran after it. A few minutes later, he had coaxed her inside where it was warm, and she approached a classmate reading a book on the rug.

“Ali has made leaps here,” said the girl’s father, Ryan Price, 41, a sporting goods sales manager. “She used to hang on to my leg when I tried to leave and then spent most of her time in the ‘upset room.’ Now, she’s interacting with the other kids and doing her routines.”

The school where Ali is thriving is Creative Kids Learning Center in northwest Seattle — and it’s cheaper for her parents than most preschools in the neighborhood. Price said they pay just $1,790 in tuition for the school year. The average cost of center-based care is $14,208 in Washington state. That’s because Creative Kids is one of 20 preschools that have joined a city program that not only offers reduced fees but also mandates class size, length of school day and curriculum in exchange for higher pay, training and tuition assistance for teachers. In the absence of adequate federal and state funding, Seattle is building a top-ranked preschool program by subsidizing tuition on its own.

Who’s footing the bill? Taxpayers. And a broad majority are doing so willingly. Five years ago, Seattle residents voted for a ballot measure to raise property taxes, generating $58 million to fund an overhaul of existing preschools, some of which are run by nonprofits or out of homes, and create new ones. The effort has been a success in the classroom as well as at the ballot box. By the 2017-2018 school year, students in Seattle Preschool Program schools had made significant gains on vocabulary, literacy and math tests compared with a nationally representative sample of children who took the same tests. In November, 68.5 percent of Seattle voters agreed to continue the tax increase to pay for even more preschool seats.

Public preschool isn’t just a West Coast trend. Cities throughout the country are offering first-rate, affordable preschool to low- and middle-income families squeezed by rising housing costs. Cincinnati voters said yes to higher property taxes. San Antonio and Denver voters supported higher sales taxes. In Philadelphia, voters agreed to a soda tax. New York, Chicago and Boston use a more complex mix of state, local and federal money. And the list goes on: The District, Los Angeles and Newark are among the other cities that have found creative ways to fund universal (or near universal) preschools at minimal cost, or even no cost, to parents.

“We can’t wait around for support at the state and federal level,” said Shiloh Turner, executive director of Cincinnati Preschool Promise, which was created with the city’s new tax revenue in 2016. “That’s precisely why so many local efforts to fund preschool have popped up. You can make it happen at the local level because we know the community’s needs best.”

How does your city stack up when it comes to pre-K quality?

Existing preschools get certain perks by joining a city program, but they must follow the city’s rules. In Seattle, preschool teachers in the city program can qualify for pay at the same rate as elementary teachers but must first get their bachelor’s degrees, unless they have many years of experience and demonstrated success. The city program will help pay for the degree.

D’onna Harmon, 24, has worked for Creative Kids for seven years and is working toward a degree with tuition help from the city.

“The support has meant everything,” Harmon said. “It’s keeping me on track and helping me to be a better teacher.”

Seattle preschool directors can’t choose just any curriculum. It must be evidence-based and approved by the city. Since joining the Seattle Preschool Program, the school has committed to using HighScope, a play-based curriculum backed by decades of research.

The switch to HighScope gives children more choice. They move from the book area to the blocks to the sandbox on their own. Teachers are available at each area to talk to the children about what they are doing, help them solve problems and sometimes challenge them with new tasks.

Ngoc-Minh-Ang Nguyen, 4, who was wearing a pink fuzzy sweater, sat at a round table and lined up four colorful toy trains and planes. Amanda Benjamin, the assistant director at the school, pointed out the pattern. “You have green, green, purple, purple,” she said. “What would come next?”

“Green,” Ngoc-Minh-Ang said.

Then, she continued lining up the other vehicles.

In other parts of the classroom, students used puppets to act out a scene from a book, built robots in the block area and ran a pretend restaurant in the kitchen area. In each instance, a teacher joined the play, answering students’ questions and helping them work through any disagreements that arose.

“An outsider might look at them and think, ‘What are they learning?’ They are running around and playing,’ ” said Grace Alams, founder of Creative Kids. “Actually it’s all learning. It’s all intentional play.”

Alams admits that after decades in education, she initially found taking advice tough. For instance, a coach who observes the school twice a month suggested moving a bookcase to open up the block area. Alams liked the bookcase exactly where it was.

“I’d been doing this awhile, so you’d think I would know how it’s done,” she said. But she moved the bookcase and saw immediate results. The block area is popular and crowded with kids. With the bookcase out of the way, the kids have more room to play, and to enter and exit the area. More room translated into fewer squabbles.

Above all else, joining Seattle’s preschool program has brought security, helping Alams cover costs ranging from teacher training to the higher pay commanded by teachers with bachelor’s degrees. Previously, Alams had to cover all such expenses on her own, which made her program more vulnerable to the vagaries of the market.

“Before the levy, we didn’t know if we would be open from year to year,” she said. “You were in an uneasy position where parents ask if you are going to have to close, or staff might ask if they should start looking for another job. That was a big weight off of us.”

For parents, a subsidized preschool means much-needed relief from the high cost of living in Seattle. Tuition at city-supported preschools is charged to parents on a sliding scale, based on income. A family of two making less than $49,463 a year pays no tuition, while the same family earning $60,000 would owe $1,437 a year. The maximum is $10,173. Cincinnati and San Antonio have similar arrangements.

“Affordability is really important to us,” said Jake Rosenberg, 36, whose 4-year-old son, Keagan, is enrolled in Creative Kids. Rosenberg is a tugboat captain and his wife is a stay-at-home mom. “A lot of people wouldn’t be able to benefit from a program like this without the help.”

Susan Lee, operations director for early-childhood education for Refugee Women’s Alliance, a Seattle organization that helps integrate refugees into the community, said one of the reasons her agency joined the city’s preschool program is that the tuition assistance allows providers to bring kids from a range of backgrounds into a single classroom.

“This way, low-income and high-income families all get the same care in the classroom,” Lee said. “They are intermixed, so you really don’t know what their family situation is. The only difference is they might speak a different language.”

Universal preschool is most cost-effective, study finds

City leaders considering a tax to pay for preschool would do well to consider carefully the source of that tax, said Turner of Cincinnati Preschool Promise. She said a committee spent several years exploring options, initially considering an earnings tax, until the business community objected. A sales tax was ruled out, in part because of a lesson learned from Denver, which levied a sales tax only to fall millions of dollars shy of costs when the market tanked in 2008. (Voters have since approved a renewal and increase of the sales tax in Denver.)

Early-childhood education advocates in Cincinnati took the time to get the backing of the business community and to ensure residents would be on board, according to Turner. They organized phone banks, held house parties and news conferences, and showed up at community events. The message: Invest early in quality education and you will save money on remediation in later grades, and prevent kids from dropping out or turning to crime. Preschool leaders in other cities outlined similar campaigns as the key to their success.

“It’s a smart investment to make on the front end that lingers and can be transformational for a community over time,” Turner said.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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