How would universal preschool affect Jewish early childhood programs?

How would universal preschool affect Jewish early childhood programs?

By Janis Siegel, Jewish Sound Correspondent

Jewish preschools in Seattle may feel the impact of a city-wide ballot measure this November that would approve and fund Mayor Ed Murray’s Seattle Preschool Plan — a four-year, $58 million education levy for a voluntary universal preschool curriculum and performance assessment model.

Passed unanimously by the Seattle City Council in May 2014, the projected 20-year program is designed to serve 80 percent of all interested 3- and 4-year-olds in Seattle and would take effect in the 2015-2016 school year.

While public funds cannot be appropriated for private schools, final eligibility guidelines for participating in the program have not yet been set, according to the City of Seattle’s deputy director for Office of Education, Sid Sidorowicz.

“Guidelines for eligibility to participate will be developed later,” Sidorowicz told The Jewish Sound. “However, the approach taken by the city, to date, is that religious entities can serve as a location for a city-funded preschool, but they may not directly operate it. For example, a church can lease space to a private operator, or may have a separate nonprofit established that does not include religious elements.”

In order to qualify, schools need to be a part of the Early Achievers Program equal to a Level 3 or higher, meaning the schools provide quality instruction beyond basic licensing standards; comply with the Classroom Assessment Scoring System and the Revised Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale; and dedicate at least two classrooms to preschool learning.

If a school already contracts with Seattle Public Schools and meets additional standards, they would have priority status.

“It looks like our school could be eligible,” Leah Lemchen, early childhood director at Congregation Beth Shalom, told The Jewish Sound. “Our school serves primarily Jewish children, but many non-Jewish families as well. We are licensed by the Washington State Department of Early Learning and we are participating in the Early Achievers program. We also have a dual language program and provide full daycare, which are priorities in the city’s proposal.”

Qualified organizations will need to be licensed by the Washington State Department of Early Learning to provide preschool services if they are not a public school or an institution of higher education.

“I believe that our 501(c)(3) status under IRS is as an educational, not a religious institution,” said Tziviah Goldberg, business and development director at the Chabad-based MMSC Day School, representing its early childhood center’s board. “On that basis, hopefully we would qualify, as would any independent school. In addition, since we are approved by the State of Washington as an institution, I hope that we would be able to participate.”

Tuition for a family of four with income under $47,700, 200 percent of the federal poverty level, would be fully subsidized by taxpayers. On the proposed sliding scale fee structure, that same family of four with an income of $59,625 would pay a $535 annual copay, calculated in 2014 dollars. An amendment passed by the City Council on June 23 set the sliding scale threshold at 300 percent of the federal poverty level.

More than 25 percent of 3- and 4-year-old children in Seattle live in families that have incomes within the subsidized poverty level, according to the Seattle Preschool Program Action Plan report.

“I believe strongly that high tuition and low wages prevent many families from affording quality programs and prevent quality teachers from remaining in the field of early learning,” said Lemchen. “If the city of Seattle has a plan to address both of these challenges through subsidies, I think that can provide an excellent opportunity for preschool and childcare programs.”

To meet the demand for enhanced early childhood education, Murray has proposed new standards for all incoming teachers and gives all current staff four years to comply with the new criteria. A program supervisor or director would need to have a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education or equivalent college-level coursework, as well as classes in educational leadership and business management.

A lead teacher would need the same bachelor’s degree, but would have the option to add a state teaching certificate. Assistants in the classroom will need an associate’s degree in early childhood education or two years of comparable coursework that would satisfy the criteria in the Washington State Core Competencies for Early Care and Educational Professionals.

Given what teachers in even the highest-quality preschools are paid, satisfying these requirements may prove difficult.

“We do not currently meet the staff education requirements and I find them to be extremely unrealistic for the pay scale of early childhood, even with improved wages and subsidies,” said Lemchen. “I do see that there is an opportunity for waivers, but if that wasn’t something we received, I see those requirements as a significant problem.”

So what would that mean for Jewish schools that wouldn’t qualify to take part in the program? It’s possible some could lose students to a free program, but Sharon Mezistrano, director of the Seattle Hebrew Academy’s early childhood education program, believes hers wouldn’t.

“SHA offers a unique program as the only Seattle-area Modern Orthodox dual-curriculum program with classes that begin with one-year-olds and allows students to complete straight through 8th grade,” she said via email. “We are fortunate to have a dedicated group of families who understand the value of this, the integration of Judaic and general studies in an environment that is emotionally responsive to students.”

Still, she expressed excitement about the idea of such a program.

“It is so crucial for excellent early childhood educational opportunities to be accessible to all children,” she said. “This issue should be front and center, as its long-term effects on students is of utmost importance in the development of healthy, well-rounded individuals.”

Not everyone agreed, however.

“This initiative would close all religious preschools down, unless parents can afford to pay tuition,” said Nechama Farkash of the Gani Preschool of the Arts at Chabad of the Central Cascades in Sammamish. “We would be competing against free tuition, as do all Jewish day schools. I would not be willing to compromise or change the religious aspect of my curriculum in order to qualify for tax money.”

Local lawmakers have not ascertained whether Farkash’s program, based in Sammamish, would be affected, as it has not taken up the question of whether families living outside of Seattle would qualify. The city estimates that after the initial four years of the program, 660 3-year-olds and 1,340 4-year-olds will have benefitted from the preschool curriculum.