Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan acknowledged a seven-year, $636.5 million education levy she’s proposing to fund her Families, Education, Preschool, and Promise plan will be a hard sell to voters come November, but she says the programs it will fund are crucial to improving the city’s economic future.
“This is going to be one of the greatest investments we can ever make in Seattle’s future,” Durkan said.
The mayor formally announced the Families, Education, Preschool, and Promise plan at the newly opened Miller Annex Preschool on Wednesday, April 18.
Fifty-seven percent of the proposed levy — $51.9 million annually — would be dedicated to expanding access to preschool from 40 to nearly 80 percent of children in that age group. That would be an increase from 1,500 preschoolers in 2018-19 to 2,700 by 2025-26.
The mayor’s Families, Education, Preschool, and Promise plan also includes an annual $23.4 million in K-12 and community-based investments, many of which will remain focused on closing the opportunity gap.
“Too many kids and too many families and too many neighborhoods have really been left behind,” Durkan said.
Those that fit in the opportunity gap include African Americans, Native Americans and Hispanics, said Durkan, who confirmed her plan would also focus on increasing the diversity of Seattle educators.
“Again, it’s something that should feel self-evident, but hasn’t been,” she said, adding students of color benefit from seeing successful people with similar backgrounds.
About 75 percent of Seattle Public Schools students graduate on time, and graduation rates have been improving, according to the Families, Education, Preschool, and Promise Action Plan, but on-time graduation rates continue to be lower for black, Hispanic and Native American students.
Under the mayor’s $636.5 million plan, homeowners of a $665,000 property in 2019 would pay $20.75 a month or $249 annually. The planned investments wouldn’t be rolled out until the following school year.
The levy would replace two existing levies set to expire this year — the 2011 Families & Education Levy and 2014 Seattle Preschool Program Levy. Those levies combined cost an average homeowner $170 annually, according to the Seattle Times.
It would come out at a time when property owners are facing higher taxes due to the Legislature’s need to satisfy the McCleary decision and adequately fund public education, and prior to a February 2019 election that will include Seattle Public Schools’ operations and construction levies.
Responding to a question about levy-weary homeowners, Durkan said the proposed increase is a smart investment for the future. By not closing the opportunity gap, she said, disadvantaged youth will continue to face the potential of ending up homeless or inside the criminal justice system. The mayor said she realizes there is a lot of work to be done educating voters about what they’re getting for their money.
The Washington Legislature last session expanded the state property tax exemption program to address levy increases. This benefits seniors, veterans and people with disabilities.
“It’s baked into the numbers,” Durkan said of the estimated costs that would be levied on property owners that acknowledge these exemptions. “It’s the first time it’s ever going to be used.”
Ten percent of the mayor’s proposed investments would go to K-12 school health — $9.4 million annually — that includes school-based health centers.
For the first time, Durkan said, there will be funding set aside in the levy specifically for assisting students experiencing homelessness.
The Seattle Promise program will only account for 7 percent of the investments from the Families, Education, Preschool, and Promise plan, but is one of the most important, Durkan said. The mayor created the Seattle Promise College Tuition Program with an executive order in November 2017. It will provide graduating seniors with two years of free college tuition and wraparound supports at Seattle Colleges.
That also means covering supplies, such as books, and making sure there are high school counselors helping students navigate the process of getting to college, Durkan said, adding the city and SPS will also be looking for private support.
Seattle Promise is expected to serve about 1,350 high school students participating in college prep each year, and 875 college students annually, according to a news release from the mayor’s office.
Seattle Central College president Sheila Edwards Lange said, of the 3,500-4,000 high school seniors, just 25 percent are expected to take advantage of the program, though she’s hopeful more than that will. The levy will also help get students into pre-apprenticeship and vocational programs, Edwards Lange said, adding many people are not familiar with the college’s Seattle Maritime Academy. The Washington State Ferries workforce is aging, she said, and maritime jobs pay more than a living wage.
While Seattle Promise is the smallest piece of Durkan’s levy package, Edwards Lange said a lot of groundwork has already been made with the 13th Year Scholarship Program that was started by the South Seattle College Foundation in 2008 and has raised $8 million in private donations — Seattle Promise is an expansion of that program.
“We have a good, solid start to this already through private donations,” she said, adding the hope is to have the Seattle Promise program fully endowed by the time the levy expires.
The mayor’s Families, Education, Preschool, and Promise now goes to the Seattle City Council, which will review the plan and should make a decision to place it on the November ballot by this summer.
“Research affirms that investing in early learning is not only a cost-effective strategy, but one that prepares more of our kids to thrive inside and outside the classroom,” said District 4 Councilmember Rob Johnson in a news release. “I am happy to see the Mayor’s action plan reflect these critical early learning investments, specifically in the growth of our Seattle Preschool Program, and I look forward to working with my colleagues on shepherding this set of investments through the Council process.”
Johnson joined the mayor and fellow Councilmembers Lorena González, Teresa Mosqueda and Debra Juarez during the April 18 press conference, as did Department of Education and Early Learning director Dwane Chappelle.