SEATTLE — One frigid morning, on a playground outside a red-painted modular classroom, a preschooler with wispy blonde 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. In fact, 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. That’s because Creative Kids is one of 20 preschools that has 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. By the 2017-18 school year, students in Seattle Preschool Program (SPP) schools had made significant gains on vocabulary, literacy, and math tests given at the start and end of the school year, compared with a nationally representative sample of kids who took the same tests. This past November, 68.5 percent of Seattle voters agreed to continue the tax hike in order to fund even more preschool seats.
Public preschool isn’t just a crunchy West Coast trend. Cities around the country are now 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: Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. and Newark, New Jersey are among the other American 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.”
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 higher pay at the same rate as elementary teachers, but they must first get their bachelor’s degrees, unless they have many years of experience and demonstrated success. But the city program will help pay for the degree. D’onna Harmon, 24, has worked for Creative Kids for seven years, and is now working towards a degree with tuition help from the city.
“The support has meant everything,” said Harmon. “It’s keeping me on track and helping me to be a better teacher.”
Seattle preschool directors can’t just choose any curriculum they like. It must be evidence-based and approved by the city. Creative Kids tested different curriculums in the past in search of one that jibed with teachers and students. 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 the 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?’” said Grace Alams, founder of Creative Kids. “‘They are running around and playing.’ Actually it’s all learning. It’s all intentional play.”
Added assistant director Benjamin: “This is about a mind shift from preschool as day care to preschool as early education. It’s an investment in children as they enter elementary.”
Alams admits that after decades in education, she initially found taking advice from coaches 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 a while, 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 bachelor’s-degree-holding teachers. 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, the sixth most expensive city in the United States, according to the Cost of Living Index. 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 pays no tuition at all, while the same family earning $60,000 would owe $1,437 per year. The maximum tuition 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 (ReWA), a Seattle organization that helps integrate refugees into the greater community, said one of the reasons ReWA 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,” said Lee. “They are intermixed so you really don’t know what their family situation is. The only difference is they might speak a different language.”
ReWA is the fastest-growing of the city’s providers with seven classrooms, four of which just opened in a brand-new center that Lee helped to design. “I wanted the school to be bright, spacious, clean, filled with fun and laughter, a school that children can be proud of,” said Lee. In the spring, the group will offer yet another 30 seats.
Not all efforts to pass new local taxes to fund city preschools have been successful. A ballot measure in Kansas City to pay for additional preschool seats with a sales tax failed in early April, lacking the support of district superintendents who argued the regressive tax would harm low-income families.
City leaders who are considering a tax to pay for preschool would do well to consider the source of that tax carefully, 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 shy of costs when the market tanked in 2008. (Voters have since approved a renewal and increase of the sales tax in Denver.)
“Denver had to make cuts to programming that were far from ideal,” said Turner. “Property tax is a much more stable source of funding. We asked for a substantial increase. It’s incredible how supported it was.”
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 press 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,” said Turner.
Cincinnati’s push for pre-K was a success. Support for preschool there was nearly as high as it was in Seattle: Although Cincinnati is a slightly more conservative city, the new tax passed with 62 percent of the vote. The only downside, said Turner, was the time limit on the tax, which was set to expire in just five years. “That’s not a lot of time to demonstrate success,” she said.
Seattle’s first property tax for preschool funding ended in December 2018, but a measure to prolong the tax for eight more years passed the month before, in November of last year. Cincinnati leaders are hoping for similar success at renewing their tax levy when it ends in 2021. San Antonio’s one-eighth of a cent sales tax to fund pre-K will be up for a vote again in 2020, but Pre-K 4 San Antonio leaders feel they have a good chance at renewal. The program has garnered widespread recognition as a model of preschool done right and earned the highest accolade, a gold medal, in the annual “Pre–K in American Cities” report. The report, by the nonprofits National Institute for Early Education Research and CityHealth, looks at factors like class size, staff qualifications and curriculum to rate pre-K quality in America’s 40 biggest cities.
The key to renewal, according to city leaders, is to demonstrate success every step of the way. Seattle has done just that. The National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University and Cultivate Learning at the University of Washington studied the city’s pilot preschool program and has issued a favorable report every year for the past three years.
Seattle also earned a silver medal in the American Cities report for meeting all 10 standards indicative of high-quality preschools, such as teacher education level, class size, and teacher-student ratio. The city did not earn a gold medal, like San Antonio and four other cities, because of the small number of 3- and 4-year-olds its programs reach. About 1,500 students, not quite 13 percent of Seattle’s 12,000 potential preschoolers, are currently enrolled. But the city hopes to increase that number to 2,500 by 2025.
City leaders said they realized early on that it was more important to build the kind of program that begs to be replicated. So they decided to take the time to test the program and iron out any kinks before concentrating on expansion. “We took the slow approach: quality over quantity,” said Monica Liang-Aguirre, director of early learning for the city of Seattle. “Now our challenge is to scale up and maintain the level of quality. That is a really intensive and expensive goal.”
In San Antonio, the first class of preschoolers to attend that city’s public preschools recently took the state’s third grade test and scored well on both reading and math. They also had higher attendance rates in kindergarten through third grade and were much less likely to be referred for special education services.
Sarah Baray, CEO of Pre-K 4 San Antonio, is pleased with the results and said the scores will likely help convince voters to pass the new tax next year. But she warns that third grade test scores may not be a good way to evaluate the quality of early learning.
“The danger in relying on any one measure of whether or not a program is working is that it can cause us to be shortsighted,” Baray said. “When people don’t see immediate results and test scores they abandon the program, only to learn five or 10 years later that there’s evidence that the early learning actually did work for the children who attended, in terms of lower discipline problems in adolescence, higher college attendance and completion rates.”
To convince San Antonians to continue supporting her program, Baray is betting on “seeing is believing.” Four model demonstration sites in her city allow visitors to observe classes. “When people can see high-quality early learning in action and we can walk with them and tell them what’s going on and why, it makes complete sense to them,” she said. “It is not unusual to have someone who is not necessarily a supporter of early learning, and particularly not a supporter of paying a higher tax for it, by the end of a visit become a supporter and sometimes even a volunteer.”
To maintain taxpayer support, cities must continually demonstrate that they can deliver on their promises. “Think of it as a contract with the voters,” said Steven Barnett, senior co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, at Rutgers. It’s like voters are saying: “We are giving you this money to deliver a high-quality service, and if you do that we will continue paying for it,” Barnett said.
Luckily for cities, Barnett said, voters rarely revoke their support.
Many of the parents dropping off children at Creative Kids, which also offers early morning care for students at the nearby elementary school, seemed to think supporting the program is the least city residents can do. Ann Hennessy voted for the property tax increase even though her daughter is in the first grade. The tax “is a pretty small sacrifice to make,” she said. “I think we should do anything we can to make sure all kids can get a better education.”
Ali’s father agrees. “We are one of the most educated cities in the U.S., and yet a lot of kids don’t have the same opportunities,” he said. He turned to Ali, who was now absorbed in reading a book with a classmate. He gave her a high-five, then headed out the door.
This story about public preschool was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.