Seattle's families-and-education levy: different this time

The amount of money, if voters approve in November, is double the previous time. The big differences are a sharper focus on schools with struggling students, and much more emphasis on measurement and competition among schools.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn kicks off Seattle Schools' 2010 levy campaign: Sometimes Seattle unites around schools but there has been frequent discord.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn kicks off Seattle Schools' 2010 levy campaign: Sometimes Seattle unites around schools but there has been frequent discord. Schools First!

The school year may be winding down, but the $231-million Families and Education Levy campaign is just heating up, heading for a vote by Seattle residents in November.

In one sense, it's more of the same. Generous Seattle voters have been approving these supplemental programs to help Seattle Schools every seven years since November 1990. But the 2011 levy marks a significant shift in the city's education policy, putting much more focus on schools in the southeast quadrant of town, where many of the students struggle. These funds are also much more competitive. In addition, this levy is double the $117 million figure of the previous levy. (These levies, based on property tax, spread the money over seven years.)

First, the broad picture: “The overarching goal for the levy is that every school child in Seattle will graduate from high school prepared for college or for the career of their choice,” says Tim Burgess, chair for public safety and education on the city council, and a chief architect of the package along with Mayor Mike McGinn.

According to Burgess, by 2018, two-thirds of all jobs in the state will require some form of post-secondary education, and we are not preparing our children for that reality.  The levy, he says, would help provide “a continuum of intervention from early education to college.” The levy campaign cites three main goals for measurable improvement: school readiness, academic achievement, and high school graduation.

At the levy's campaign kick-off at Beacon Hill's El Centro de la Raza, Mayor McGinn emphasized the “persistent achievement gap” in Seattle Public Schools, something the school board recently fessed up to as well.  That gap creates an ethical and economic imperative, the mayor and other supporters say, calling it an imperative to improve the lives of Seattle's most needy kids and to produce career-ready graduates to support local industry.

The measure goes before all Seattle voters this fall, but the funds are focused geographically and on schools with disadvantaged students more than in the past. Further, these schools have to demonstrate their ability to measure progress to get the funds; and those who falter can lose them just as those schools doing well could gain additional funding. In the new era of philanthropic accountability, schools will be signing "performance-based contracts," and results will be "tracked through a data-sharing agreement with Seattle Public Schools and through the choice of implementers [grantees] who can actively use data to improve what they do," according to the levy's presentation materials.

This levy is explicitly tilted toward helping the schools with struggling students. “I think of Families and Education as one counter-trend in the polarization of wealth in our country,” explains Michael DeBell, vice president of the Seattle School Board. “Success in K-12 education is one of the best ways to address multigenerational poverty.”

“It's a tale of two school districts,” adds Holly Miller, the director of the city's Office for Education and another key architect of this levy and the previous one in 2004. As she talks, Miller looks over a map of Seattle schools. It shows a forest of colorful dots ranging from red to blue, each indicating a different school.  The clump north of the central district is mostly blue and green (higher-performing schools), and those to the south are almost entirely yellow, orange, and red (lower-performing schools). 

Asked about the political risk of getting dedicated North End voters to support a measure primarily aimed at schools in the lower-voting South End, Miller cites history: “The North End is very supportive,” she says, adding that adults without kids are just as likely as families to vote for a levy supporting education.

One of the criticisms of past levies is that they tended to spread relatively few dollars across many schools and many programs. The levy materials are candid about the shift this year: "While the levy continues to fund many of the programs instituted in the past [such as School-Based Health Centers], there is a sharper focus on preparing children for school and improving academic achievemnt of those students living in neighborhoods with the highest poverty rates, lowest attendance rates, and the largest number of youth who have failed to pass state assessments."


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Jun 23, 10:41 a.m. Inappropriate

Mr. Neumann writes: "[i]So far, there seems to be very little opposition to the levy, despite the higher amount, recent school scandals, and the recession.[/i]"

I'm not surprised that Mr. Neumann didn't hear about any opposition at the campaign kick-off event for the levy. Perhaps he would find that opposition if he stepped outside his bubble.

There is a lot of opposition to the levy expressed by angry taxpayers all over the city, by angry school families in the overcrowded schools in the northeast and West Seattle, and by angry families in the south-end who believe that they have been shafted by the District.

coolpapa

Posted Thu, Jun 23, 10:50 a.m. Inappropriate

I wonder how much of the families-and-education levy is slated to be siphoned off to politically-connected non-profits under the ruse of Social Justice? Kicking the effort off at El Centro de la Raza probably indicates: quite a lot.

BlueLight

Posted Thu, Jun 23, 10:56 a.m. Inappropriate

Given tht the District can afford to turn down a $9.7M+ all-cash offer for the Martin Luther King Jr. School, in favor of $2.3M taxpayer-funded dollars from AME church, they certainly don't need levy dollars from me.

Posted Thu, Jun 23, 11:33 a.m. Inappropriate

Better idea. All 46,000 Seattle government school students somehow find their way into a private school. Abolish the district; eliminate the property taxes and levies going down the drain.

animalal

Posted Thu, Jun 23, 12:01 p.m. Inappropriate

Suggestion for a follow up story or stories:

1. results from 1989 to present of what the money has actually done. Has the past money actually closed the achievement gap? What have been the big successes? What has not worked well, and how are those lessons being applied to the type of programs (not just the focus on directing the money to certain schools).

2. a breakout of where the money will go by grade level, by type of program, etc

3. examples of how the tracking success will work going forward. For example, how does one measure success in creating a college-going culture, and how long does a program have to work before funding either gets increased or dropped?

sjenner

Posted Thu, Jun 23, 12:15 p.m. Inappropriate

We have voted for every SPS levy for forty years, but I think this year, perhaps we will go negative. I want to see (1) a strong and aggressive expression of failure regarding the recent scandals. I want to hear the people who engineered the MLK fiasco explain what they were doing and why SPS didn't need the millions Bush School offered. I want more mea culpas connected to the MGJ scandals. (2) I want the people who did this to get off the playground, to be out of the system. The Board that so cavalierly closed those schools a few years ago and is now spending $10 million getting Viewlands back to par needs to be cleaned out. One step forward would be to get Soriano and Bass back on the Board and clean out the rest.
I think the author is going to be surprised at how the electorate feels about the school system.

Spike

Posted Fri, Jun 24, 7:32 a.m. Inappropriate

Wilbur_Watson is in luck!

There is a way for voters to express their frustrations with the District and instigate a change in priorities: Replace the four members of the Board who are running for re-election this year.

coolpapa

Posted Fri, Jun 24, 3:06 p.m. Inappropriate

The structure of the District's management is not flawed, but an awful lot of flawed people have been serving in it.

The Board members elected in 2007, Peter Maier, Sherry Carr, Steve Sundquist and Harium Martin-Morris, have made the conscious decision to refuse to do the work of the Board.

Had they done their job, then a lot of the past three years of mis-management and dysfunction would not have occurred.

A Board that performed oversight would not have approved the closure of the schools that soon had to be re-opened.

A Board that peformed oversight would have exposed the wasteful spending in the RSBDP.

A Board that performed oversight would not have approved millions in contracts for consultants.

A Board that performed oversight would have publicly reviewed the peformance of various departments and programs.

A Board that provided governance would have enforced policies and worked against the lawless culture of the District.

A Board that engaged the community and represented it would have stopped a lot of bad ideas before they started and long before they were acted on.

A Board that engaged the community would have been more responsive and would have earned people's trust.

The only narrow agenda someone needs to want to serve on the school board is to want the schools to run well and serve the community.

coolpapa

Posted Fri, Jun 24, 3:07 p.m. Inappropriate

That said, I think we would be better served by an elected superintendent and an appointed Board.

coolpapa

Posted Fri, Jun 24, 3:07 p.m. Inappropriate

Hey Wilbur, one constant over those twenty years where board members change but mediocrity remains, one that facilitates the school district getting "side tracked on ill thought out programs aimed at community building that has nothing to do with first rate schools": unions.

BlueLight

Posted Fri, Jun 24, 4:36 p.m. Inappropriate

If you had watched the public hearings during the debate over the school closings, you would have seen something obvious. Sally Soriano and Mary Bass were the only members of the Board who actually listened to the public input. They responded intelligently and voted responsibly. Only they showed the traits that Coolpapa described above. The others showed the disconnect that allowed all those problems to grow. What happened to those two women? They were targeted for removal by the Powers Behind the Throne, and they were succesfully removed. The result today is that list of horrors cited by Coolpapa. Yes, we need to clean house and to find some principled people whose goals are the specific needs of the schoolhouse. The "flawed" people mentioned need to be cut loose.
A District that disdains the significance of millions of stolen tax dollars (and that ignores millions of dollars of private money in order to sell MLK to an incompetent purchaser using public tax dollars) -- that District really shouldn't be asking for millions all over again. Voters need to remember how their taxes were abused.

Spike

Posted Thu, Jul 7, 5:08 p.m. Inappropriate

Hey BlueLight, one constant over those twenty years in which personnel change but mediocrity remains: student outcomes are much more influenced by forces at home than at school.

coolpapa

Posted Fri, Jul 8, 9:42 a.m. Inappropriate

The School Board approved the operating and capital budgets for next year.

Big surprise, they won't be spending the money from the supplemental levy as they promised voters they would.

Everyone who is surprised by this totally predictable turn of events needs to acknowledge their naivete.

coolpapa

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