Educators Help Keep Political Momentum Going for Expanded Pre-K

Until she appeared before the Seattle City Council in May, elementary school teacher Elizabeth Owen-Twombley had never publicly testified before any group of elected officials. But when the opportunity arose to champion pre-K education, Owen-Twombley wasn’t about to pass up the chance to speak directly to lawmakers.

Owen-Twombley teaches at Roxhill Elementary in West Seattle. With roughly 75 percent of the students eligible for free-or reduced lunch, she sees firsthand everyday the deficits between the students who have had previous school experience and those who have not. The importance of creating a more level playing field for all her students motivated her to speak publicly about early childhood education at the city council meeting, where she was joined by other colleagues, parents and Seattle Education Association Vice President Phyllis Campano.

“From where I teach, a lot of kids are coming to kindergarten without any prior schooling. This creates a huge discrepancy. It sets these kids up for a long game of catch-up,” Owen-Twombley explained.

It’s this disadvantage that the sweeping early childhood education proposal launched by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and Seattle City Council President Tim Burgess earlier this year aims over time to eradicate. The plan has generated considerable excitement among educators and parents.

“This is so long overdue,” Owen-Twombley said. “The level of support for the proposal is impressive. People now really understand why we need to move forward.”

States Taking the Lead

Early childhood education, along with college affordability, has been a focal point of President Barack Obama’s education agenda in his second term. In his 2013 State of the Union address, Obama called for a national investment in universal preschool education. He repeated this call in 2014 but, despite a few hearings and some degree of bipartisan interest, movement on Capitol Hill has been slow.

“Last year, I asked this Congress to help states make high-quality pre-K available to every 4-year-old,” Obama said in this years State of the Union. “As a parent as well as a president, I repeat that request tonight. But in the meantime, 30 states have raised pre-K funding on their own. They know we can’t wait.”

It is on the state and local level, that early childhood education advocates are seeing momentum, as lawmakers, educators and parents are demanding renewed investment.

“Early childhood education is an issue that governors, mayors, federal and state candidates, business leaders and law enforcement officials are supporting – in red and blue states alike,” Kris Perry, President of the First Five Years Fund explains.  “Just this year, we’ve seen gubernatorial candidates in Maryland, Arkansas and Texas championing early childhood education. Lawmakers in New York, Vermont and New Mexico made significant investments to expand access to preschool opportunities.  Additionally, Hawaii and Indiana committed to funding public early childhood education programs for the first time this year.”

Still, as Perry points out, a federal-state partnership is essential.

“These states can’t do it alone. Federal investments in early childhood education are crucial for supporting improvement in quality, helping states expand access and providing care to all families and children – regardless of income.”

A Sense of Urgency

Even as members of Congress begin to markup bills in committee, many states aren’t standing still as educator activists are helping making the case to their elected leaders that extending access to pre-K for economically disadvantaged students should be a priority.

In the spring, the Connecticut Education Association urged legislators to pass the Smart Start initiative that would provide a 10-year, $200 million investment for 50,000 children to receive high-quality early education experiences, an important step on the road to  universal pre-K.

“Smart Start applies what we as educators know about the important positive effects of early childhood education,” CEA President Sheila Chen explained. “High quality preschool education supports and enhances young children’s development and future success.”

Even as some states have moved rather quickly in funding new programs, progress has stalled elsewhere, compelling cities to jump into the mix.

New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio recently won a hard-fought $300 million from the state to begin funding his ambitious pre-K program. Even though his plan to tax high-income residents to raise even more revenue was nixed, the funding level is more than sufficient to begin the program, with plans to expand in subsequent years.

On June 24, the Seattle City Council voted to send to the voters a preschool program that would pay for up to 2,000 free or reduced-price preschool slots for three- and four-year-olds by the time it was fully phased in in 2018. It would be funded by a property tax levy of approximately $58 million. Although the initial enrollment is small, lawmakers decided to scale back to a pilot project to get started, as opposed to full-scale implementation from the get-go. Despite the consensus to get it done, getting it done right is more important.

When Mayor Ed Murray and councilman Tim Burgess began to formulate the proposal, they reached out to Seattle educators to ensure that teacher voices were heard.

“They wanted out input early on,” said Seattle Education President Jonathan Knapp. “We have had a long-standing relationship with Burgess.  We then took it to our members and created a working group of K-2 teachers to build our thinking around the proposal.  Later, the Mayor met with SEA leadership to understand our concerns and aspirations.”

“We have been putting the members of our working group in front of the public on this issue.  They have been the face of our association on this issue both in the public hearings that the city council held around town and in the media, including television news interviews,” he added.

Teacher Elizabeth Owen-Twombley believes strongly that lawmakers need to hear from educators about the impact in the classroom.

“Being able to explain to council members in person how early childhood education benefits so many of our students is very important,” Owen-Twombley explained. “Educators feel  a great sense of urgency about the kids who will be entering our classes who won’t have the confidence and experience that a good preK program can provide.

“The Seattle program may be starting small, but it’s better to emphasize quality over quantity at this point,” Owen-Twombley added.  ”The debate is over about the value of preK. It’s great that we’re no longer talking about if. We’re talking about how the city is going to do this.”