By age 3, 85 percent of a child’s brain growth is complete. At that age, children who hear lots of talking not only develop strong audio processing in their brain, but also the framework for speaking.
The Institute for Learning and Brain Science (I-LABS) measures this growth using magnetoencephalography — noninvasive magnetic brain scanning — to see how a baby’s brain is developing.
Research is consistently showing that the early years are vital to a person’s development and a strong predictor for future success. Children who have lots of positive interaction with their parents and caregivers at a young age are more likely to flourish as adults. Children without that support are more likely to struggle, have mental illnesses and need multiple interventions in the future.
This scientific research is the underpinning of a levy King County Executive Dow Constantine wants to put before voters this fall. The Best Starts for Kids levy will charge a property tax to pay for programs providing support to help kids get what they need from the womb to age 24.
“That science tells us that early experiences — positive and negative — have a dramatic impact on the physical shape and organization of the brain,” Constantine said during his State of the County address on April 27.
The effort is also meant to stem the tide of the county’s massive amount of criminal justice funding. About 75 percent of the county’s general fund is spent on law and justice.
“That’s just not the right way to spend money,” said Adrienne Quinn, director of the King County Department of Community and Human Services.
The six-year levy lid lift will charge 14 cents per $1,000 of assessed value to property owners, costing the average King County homeowner about $56 per year. If voters approve the levy in November, it will raise $392.3 million and generate about $58 million each year for public health programs, parent supports, screenings and early intervention services.
The levy must first be approved by the King County Council, which has until July to accept the proposal and send it to voters. Constantine intends for the levy to be considered by voters in the general election on Nov. 3.
King County voters rejected the last tax proposal; however, it was a very different proposal. In April of 2014, voters turned down a proposal to add a 0.1 percent sales tax and $60 vehicle fee to pay for Metro transit and other transportation improvements.
The Best Starts for Kids levy is a property tax, considered by many to be more progressive than a sales tax, which can be harder for low-income people.
The money is meant to be used to help families early and prevent people from needing later interventions such as mental health support, housing programs and education. The thinking is based on the Heckman Equation, which argues that interventions and support are stronger and longer lasting the earlier they occur. Supporting a pregnant parent or a young child early can prevent the child from having problems later in life, when interventions are more expensive.
Much of the work involves helping parents engage with their children verbally, said Sarah Lytle, Ph.D., at UW’s I-LABS.
She said one of the most important things a child can experience is verbal interaction with their parents: Reading books at home, speaking while in a car, and talking and interacting while at the grocery store. Gadgets and toys don’t make a huge difference she said; talking does.
“It’s not about providing the stuff,” Lytle said. “It’s about providing the time.”
The bulk of the funding — 50 percent — will be spent on supports for expectant parents and children up to age 5. This can include providing education, support and home-visits to expectant parents, outreach to parents after a child is born and high-quality child care. It will also pay for screening to identify and support children who have experienced trauma, such as domestic violence or sexual assault.
Thirty-five percent of the funding will be spent on supports for children and young adults aged 5 to 24. This can include screening and early intervention for depression and other mental illnesses, preventive health services in schools, funding for youth homelessness and diversion programs to avoid sending youth into the juvenile justice system.
Nine percent of the funding will pay for community-wide supports, and the final 6 percent will pay for evaluation and data collection of the programs to see what is working.
Merril Cousin, executive director of the King County Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said this is an important investment to make, and that she looks forward to paying her tax bill to support this work.
“It’s small compared to what we’re paying for the cost of not addressing these problems,” she said. “I think it can make a real difference in people’s lives.”