How Proposition 1A will put Seattle on the road to high-quality early learning

October 27, 2014 | Gary Burris

child climbing ladderThis November, Seattle voters will have the opportunity to choose between two competing ballot measures seeking to improve the quality of early learning in the city.

Proposition 1A (Yes for Early Success) and Proposition 1B (the Seattle Preschool Initiative) both aim to increase access to high-quality childcare and improve teacher compensation, but they go about it in very different ways.

Four elements are vital to creating a high-quality child care and early learning system in Seattle:

1)      Creating high quality programs for all kids;

2)      Improving higher education and professional development opportunities for teachers and providers*;

3)      Attracting and retaining high quality staff (by increasing wages above the minimum wage);

4)      Reducing costs so parents can afford high quality child care and early learning settings.

The key difference between the two measures is this:

  • Proposition 1A takes small first steps toward addressing each of those four elements.
  • Proposition 1B focuses only on a small slice of the ‘quality programs’ element (via a proposed comprehensive pre-school for 3- and 4-year–olds), and takes a similarly narrow approach on ‘quality staff’ by improving wages for a very small group of teachers.

Proposition  1A

Proposition 1A is based on the principle that all teachers and providers in all settings need to be high quality. All kids benefit when every program focuses on quality improvements, and all teachers and providers are given the opportunities and support they need to improve.

It’s well-known what ‘high-quality’ looks like. Standards that identify high-quality programs (based in well-founded research) are in place for all types of facilities and for teachers and providers through the state’s Early Achievers Program. It would be a waste of resources for the city to adopt its own set of quality facility and teaching standards (which Prop 1B does – but more on that in a minute).

Proposition 1A helps ‘grease the skids’ toward everyone meeting those standards by ensuring the city works in collaboration with child care providers to create training standards that align with those Early Achievers Standards. In this way, 1A creates a structure to begin ensuring more education is provided to the early learning workforce.

There are currently 272 licensed centers and 477 licensed home providers in Seattle. Well over one thousand early learning teachers and providers – and let’s not forget, the over 23,000 children in their care – would be positively impacted by this training initiative alone.

Next, Proposition 1A promotes higher wages, which are essential to recruiting and retaining high quality teachers and providers. Research shows children have better outcomes from both high-quality interactions with teachers and having the same caregiver. But as any parent with a child in childcare will tell you, there is massive employee turnover in the field.  Two out of five teachers leave their child care setting within any one year. This is due in large part to the fact that many child care providers and teachers earn poverty-level wages.

In order to increase wages for child care providers and teachers, some source of public funding is essential – otherwise middle- and working-class families will be further squeezed by the increased costs associated with higher quality programs.

The high cost of child care already makes paying for it difficult or altogether impossible for many families. Child care costs in King County are among the highest in the nation, while over a quarter of all three- and four-year-olds in Seattle live in families with incomes below 200% of federal poverty level ($47,700 for a family of four in 2014).[i]

In some cases, government subsidies are available – but many who do actually need help do not qualify. For example: a single mother earning $33,500 a year (the median income for a single female parent in King County) makes too much money for a subsidy, but would still have to spend 52% of her salary to cover the market rate for one infant at a child care center.[ii]

Research shows age 0-5 is the most critical time in brain, cognitive and linguistic development; yet early learning is the only education for which we do not provide any type of universal public funding. Currently, tax revenue is supposed to provide full funding for K-12 education; it also funds a significant (though shrinking) portion of higher education. Seattle has targeted programs to pay early learning tuition for low-income families, making our city a good place to start the dialog about how to underwrite a significant portion of the cost of early childhood education for more families.

Proposition 1A takes a first, very important step in that direction. It sets an ambitious goal that no family should pay more than 10% of its income on child care and early learning, and requires the city to begin making plans for helping to reduce the costs of child care for parents.

Proposition  1B

Proposition 1B aims to establish a Seattle Preschool Initiative for 3- and 4-year-olds, initially targeting children from low-income families with high-quality, comprehensive early learning programs. The ‘comprehensive’ nature of such programs means it focuses on both the children’s experiences in the classroom setting and providing support in the home environment as well. In terms of cost/benefit analysis, it’s no surprise the returns are great. These kinds of programs typically show increases in school-readiness and graduation, better employment, and reduced risky behaviors and criminal activity.

While increasing access to comprehensive pre-school programs is an important piece of a high quality early learning system, Proposition 1B has several fundamental flaws:

1) Proposition 1B “reinvents the wheel” by not taking advantage of what’s already in place. The State of Washington already has a comprehensive pre-K program in place, known as the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP). Legislation has already passed to make this program available to all interested families by 2019; it is slated to double in size over the next five years.

As proposed, Proposition 1B does not consider how best to integrate with the current levels and planned expansion of ECEAP. If it did, there would be many opportunities for enhancement. ECEAP serves children at greater levels of poverty than the proposed Seattle pre-K initiative, and in many cases is only a ½ day program. Instead of coordinating with ECEAP, under Proposition 1B Seattle will end up duplicating it, and creating unnecessary bureaucracy along the way.

2) The costs of Proposition 1B are also excessive compared to other similar programs. In Seattle, the cost will be $15,000 for a 4-6 hour slot, compared to $10,000 for full-time pre-K in the city of Tulsa. Our state’s ECEAP program is serving 8,741 children at a cost of $6,890 per child in 2014.

3) There’s a huge administrative component to Proposition 1B. Tuition, which covers direct services, is a little under $11,000 per student – yet based on the budget outlined in the Seattle Pre-School Action Plan, the total cost per child including administration and contracted services in the final year of operation is $15,409 (budget of $20,544,891 over 8 months of operation serving 2,000 children).

4) While it’s billed as a program that the city would like to expand to all families, Proposition 1B is based on a high cost, comprehensive services model specifically designed for very low-income families that have numerous risk factors at play. As such, it has far more services built into it than most families will need, and it isn’t necessary to bring that to scale across the entire city. (It’s important to note that all children receive benefits from high quality child care and early learning experiences; most children don’t need the costlier comprehensive program, but do show better child outcomes in high-quality care settings.)

5) Tuition subsidies under Proposition 1B extend on a sliding scale to even the wealthiest families in the city – an unnecessary and unjust redistribution of taxpayer money to the wealthy. The subsidy is pegged at 10% of tuition for incomes above $238,500 – but since tuition only represents a portion of the overall cost, very high income families would get far more than a 10% subsidy. These wealthy families participating in Proposition 1B’s program will pay 90% of tuition ($9,630), while the city will subsidize $5,779 of the total cost. The net effect is that the wealthiest Seattle families will pay just 62% of the cost of their child’s participation, while the city pays 38%.

6) Proposition 1B is a “one-size fits all” proposal in an environment where there are many types of high quality programs. It’s simply not necessary to restrict high-quality programs to a couple of “empirically proven” programs that show results with high-risk, very low-income families. For low-income children, ECEAP or the other comprehensive models make sense. For other families, the city can and should look at outcome data from other successful programs and support them.

7) Proposition 1B’s Action Plan (unrealistically) proposes housing preschool programs in Seattle public schools at a time when Seattle schools are already at capacity, and don’t have room to house more K-12 classes, let alone add additional preschool classrooms.

Recommendation

We recommend passing Proposition 1A now, and encourage the Mayor and City Council to make an initial investment in the professional development component. The professional development component and initial planning for affordable child care can be done in the first year for a modest amount of money. (Proposition 1B’s Action Plan identifies several million dollars it would pull from the Family and Education Levy to fund Seattle Pre-K. A far smaller portion of these funds would get Proposition 1A underway.)

Second, we recommend the Mayor and City Council bring a more comprehensive and fiscally sound ballot proposition back to the voters next year that raises revenue to support all four of the key early learning needs in the city. Such a proposition could provide training funds, a small cost of salary increases to child care teachers, and pay for a better designed and integrated pre-k program, all with the same level of expenditures as Proposition 1B now proposes.

*A note on terminology: “teacher” and “provider” are the terms often used for a classroom position and an in-home position, respectively – but their roles are for the most part interchangeable. Children are learning in all early learning settings, and both teachers and providers create an environment and promote activities designed to encourage and support a child’s development.


[i] Seattle Preschool Program Action Plan. (2014). City of Seattle. Retrieved from: http://murray.seattle.gov/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Seattle-Preschool-Program.pdf

[ii] Keenan, V. N. (2014). Between a Rock and a Hard Place: King County’s Child Care Crisis. Puget Sound Sage. Retrieved from: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/1280303-between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place.html

Posted in Early Learning, Education

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