I met over breakfast this morning with Rick Allen, the president of United Way of Pierce County. The subject: early childhood education.
Specifically, the early learning initiative United Way and various partners are poised to launch in the high-poverty areas of the Tacoma, Bethel, Franklin-Pierce and Clover Park school districts. The goal is to do what it takes – parent education, day care improvements, etc. – to help kids be ready for school by the time they reach kindergarten.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other benefactors are funding the effort, but communities are expected to make some commitment of their own in order to get the benefit of the outside funds.
In Lakewood, the local contribution would be $50,000 – almost budget dust in light of the $98,000,000 the city government will spend this year. But Allen said he ran into some real pushback when he spoke to the Lakewood council about it last night.
One councilman, he said, spoke of United Way as wanting “a hand-out.” In fact, Lakewood would be getting the hand-out. The $50,000 would leverage far more in donated money, with the benefits earmarked for struggling Lakewood preschoolers.
Which raises a question. The reputation of the Clover Park School District is not stellar, fair or unfair as that perception may be. Hundreds of Lakewood families try to enroll their students in neighboring districts every year.
This hurts property values and property taxes. If prospective homebuyers have children, one of the first things they ask is “How good are the schools?” In Lakewood, the answer can be painful.
One of the surest ways to get high-performing schools is to give teachers students who are prepared to function emotionally, socially and mentally. Lakewood has far too many kindergartners who just aren’t there.
Getting back to that $50,000: The City of Lakewood probably forfeits many, many times that in property tax revenues – every year – because it doesn’t have the kind of broad early learning program Allen and others are trying to give it.
Penny wise, pound foolish.