City education levy: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Weighing the pluses and minuses on a big issue for children and parents helps put the upcoming campaign in perspective.

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A student takes a state-mandated test in a California school.

Weighing the pluses and minuses on a big issue for children and parents helps put the upcoming campaign in perspective.

It’s a terrible thing to wrestle with whether to vote for a levy that would send money to programs supporting public education in Seattle. My experience in opposing a few Seattle school levies is that the attitude in Seattle is: "Mom, apple pie, and education levies."

The city’s Families and Education Levy is coming up for a vote this November. This seven-year levy was first passed in 1990 at a cost of $69 million. It stayed at $69 million in 1997, then shot up to $116 million in 2004. The 2011 version recently proposed by Mayor Mike McGinn has doubled to $231 million. If the Seattle City Council keeps the proposal at that level, the property tax bill for the owner of a median-priced home would rise from $65 to $124 per year.

First, here's The Good in the levy.

The 2011 Families and Education levy committee did an admirable job in seeking input on what is needed to improve education in Seattle and using that feedback to shape the levy.

The programs created by the levy will follow a competitive bidding process. Targets are set and merit pay is built-in to help drive meeting targets. There is accountability and transparency in the form of annual reports made about the progress of each program in the levy.

While parts of the levy help all students in Seattle Public Schools, it really concentrates on the students in the lowest-performing schools. It follows the feeder patterns of those schools based on the new SPS neighborhood-based student assignment plan. The current levy report from 2009-2010 shows that students in the program have increased homework completion rates, are passing core courses, and improving their attendance rates. More families with students in their programs are attending parent-teacher conferences and school events.

At the elementary level, the levy funds programs to support extended learning time, out-of-school time, summer learning, and family support.

For middle school, the levy focuses on the same first three items as elementary but broadens out to include college and career planning, case management for struggling students, and school-based health centers.

At the high school level, the levy supports helping students complete 9th grade successfully (a predictor of graduation). There is also case management, college readiness assessment in 10th grade, and summer learning.

The levy funds school-based health centers at all 10 comprehensive high schools, one at two non-traditional high schools sharing a building, Nova and SBOC (the 6-12 school for immigrant students), and at four middle schools. Mercer Middle School will be the newest middle school to have a health center. The levy will even fund dental services at the health centers.

With state health cuts and, especially, for students whose parents who cannot afford health insurance, these health centers are vital. The city’s Office of Education staff is now able to point to research-based evidence that students who use health centers are more likely to improve both their GPA and attendance than those who don’t. The number of students brought into compliance with required immunizations has soared over the life of the 2004 F&E levy from 4,001 to 7,388.

Now for The Bad in this levy. The most obvious problem is the national recession. While adding an extra $65 a year to a tax bill might not seem like a lot, again, the overall tax bill is getting higher. For those who live on a fixed income or who are struggling, this is hardship.

In a recent Seattle Times article (Feb. 10) about Seattle property taxes, it was pointed out that while property taxes have gone down as housing prices dropped, the tax bill is still rising because of the approval of school levies and bonds. In February 2010, voters approved a Seattle Public Schools’ operations levy and a school maintenance levy, and in November 2010, a supplemental levy. Thus, the Families and Education levy becomes the fourth education levy in two years.

There are issues around the rising costs of health care and that hasn’t been missed in the school-based health centers.

Critics of the levy make some valid points. Paul Guppy of the Washington Policy Center points out that leaving programs to a vote is probably not the best way to fund them.

It has taken time for the city to get accountability measures in place. Some of the statistics about progress are squishy.

There is also worry as the funding gets bigger, the scope gets bigger, there are more partners involved, and, basically, it will be a huge undertaking to keep track of every program as well as monitoring results.

And, there are The Ugly parts of the levy. I asked the staff at the city’s Office of Education if they thought that the district may be cutting some funding in its own budget and then counting on the Families and Education levy to backfill those programs. The answer was that the levy is not there to supplant programs the district has cut. Evidence seems to point to the district looking to the levy to create programs they themselves either cut or don’t have in place.

Two years ago, SPS cut all the high school career counselors. Last year the district cut the summer school program. The levy covers, to some degree, both areas.

Additionally, the interventions for struggling students — case management of students whose attendance is dropping and/or failing classes — are the very things that both Everett and Tukwila school districts are doing with great success. In seven years, Everett’s graduation rate has soared from about 56 percent to 83 percent; Tukwila is at 93 percent. The levy will now include that same kind of intervention for low-performing middle and high schools.

Basics to getting all students ready for college and career would include college/career counseling, direct interventions, and summer school. That Seattle Public Schools offers almost none of it is troubling.

On balance, looking at all aspects, I say support the Families and Education levy. Support it because the city does a far better job in oversight, accountability, and transparency of dollars spent than the district does with its own levies.

Support it because of the important intervention work the levy does at high schools and middle schools. Support it because early childhood education and family support is vital to more children becoming eager and ready learners.

Support it because its work towards supporting public education is vital. It’s a cost worth bearing.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Melissa Westbrook

Melissa Westbrook is a public education advocate and writer/moderator of the Seattle Schools Community Forum.