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

Is it possible to fully fund the state's public schools? Credit: Seattle Public Schools

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.”

There is also a sharper focus on making schools compete within those groups. At the Pre-K-3 level, funds will flow to all the city’s 23 Title One schools (those with over 40 percent students on the free and reduced lunch program). These programs will include parent-child programs in the home, in-home skill building, summer-learning programs for struggling students, and extended in-school learning time for such students.

By the middle school and high school level, levy funding gets more competitive, with grants limited to five schools at each level. Among the interesting programs: a special focus on academic success in ninth grade; creation of strong “college-going cultures”; “nimble approaches to identifying and supporting students who might otherwise not succeed”; hiring stability of staff; and interventions for social, emotional, and behavioral support.

So far, there seems to be very little opposition to the levy, despite the higher amount, recent school scandals, and the recession. City Hall is unified in its support, with sometimes-rivals Burgess and McGinn very much on the same page and energetically pushing for passage. McGinn went for the high number, despite some advice to keep the levy under $200 million. Somewhat surprisingly, the city council resisted the political temptation to carve off several million dollars and adopted the full proposal from McGinn and the broad-based committee that fashioned the package.

The first levy came out of Mayor Norm Rice’s educational summit, convened shortly after he was elected mayor in 1989. That summit defused a difficult decision about mandatory busing for integration, which Rice managed to wind down, and created a way for the School District to gain more educational funds beyond state funds and the district’s own special levies and capital levies. It was renewed in 1997 at $69 million and again in 2004 at $117 million.

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