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Blue Manatee Literacy Project

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

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.”

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