Early Childhood Education
5:00 am
Tue May 20, 2014

As Seattle Mulls Pre-K Program, We Ask: What Impact Does Early Learning Have?

Some children have never held a pencil or a pair of scissors when they start the year in teacher DaZanne Davis Porter's kindergarten class.

They enter her classroom at Seattle's Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary at the beginning of the year and "cannot recognize any letters, any colors, any numbers, any shapes," Davis Porter said. "By the end of the year, they are [expected] to be reading."

"When you're starting the journey behind," she asked, "do they ever catch up?"

Davis Porter sees pre-kindergarten as the key to making sure students don't start the journey behind, which is why she supports Seattle Mayor Ed Murray's recently-proposed $58 million property tax hike to fund an expansion of preschool services in the city. The mayor's plan aims to increase low-income children's access to preschool by enrolling 2,000 children in 100 classrooms by the year 2018.

What Does Research Say? Depends On Who You Ask

Pre-K advocates say research is on Davis Porter's side, showing early childhood education not only gives kids a jumpstart on kindergarten, but can even increase students' likelihood of graduating from high school or making a decent wage later in life. President Barack Obama has cited figures, disputed by some, showing every dollar spent on pre-K delivers $7 in economic benefits later.

Skeptics, on the other hand, say it's easy to oversell the preschool's benefits; publicly-funded programs can be a mixed bag. While research on some public preschool programs have shown successes, others have shown little to no positive impact on students' academic performance.

"The best available evidence raises serious doubts that a large public investment in the expansion of pre-K for 4-year-olds will have the long-term effects that advocates tout," wrote Russ Whitehurst, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Whitehurst pointed to a 2012 Head Start study, which showed the academic benefits of the federally-funded early childhood education program disappear completely by third grade.

Seattle Education Association vice president Phyllis Campano says that study didn't reflect changes that have been made to the Head Start program.

"They really have brought up their quality. [Seattle's proposed pre-K initiative] takes the next step," Campano said, adding she believes this program will help close gaps in academic achievement that persist between racial and socio-economic groups.

What's Next For Seattle

The Seattle City Council's Select Committee on Preschool for All will meet again on Friday. By the end of the month, the mayor's staff is expected to deliver a legislative package to put the proposed tax hike on the November ballot. If voters approve the measure, it would levy roughly $14.5 million over four years.