The Families and Education Levy: worthwhile progress?

The levy is on the ballot, up for a seven-year renewal by voters. Two Seattle middle school principals spoke to Crosscut about the levy's impact on their students.

Crosscut archive image.

The levy is on the ballot, up for a seven-year renewal by voters. Two Seattle middle school principals spoke to Crosscut about the levy's impact on their students.

Endorsements and repudiations of Seattle’s 2011 Families and Education Levy (FEL) multiply as the Nov. 8 vote approaches. At stake is $231 million to fund special programs in the public schools over the next seven years, which would come from a rise in annual property taxes during that period.

Levy opponents and critics such as Washington Policy Center, Seattle Republicans, and opposition web sites Sound Families and Seattle Families Against Prop 1 say the levy should fail because, among other things, the achievement gap persists and graduation rates are still too low despite millions spent in the past. The Washington Policy Center offers the most complex case against the levy — at times seeming to fault it for not furthering their own goals of reforming administrative structure and teacher retention. Critics also oppose raising property taxes, especially when family finances are tight.

On the other hand, FEL 2011 has been endorsed by the Municipal League of King County despite its concerns about adding to tax burdens in tough economic times. Property taxes are less regressive than other taxes, says the League, and the “return on investment far exceeds the costs.” Others who argue that levy programs are well worth funding include the Downtown Seattle Association, Seattle Chamber of Commerce, and The Seattle Times.

The owner of a home at Seattle’s average assessed residential worth of $462,045 would pay approximately $126 in 2012. A previous Family and Education Levy, which was smaller, is expiring.

Are levy programs effective enough in boosting academic performance? Though the achievement gap hasn't closed and graduation rates remain unsatisfactory, the principals of Mercer and Denny International, two of Seattle's most challenged middle schools, suggest that FEL is fueling system-wide momentum toward those goals.

Denny International principal Jeff Clark credits levy-funded programs for his students' higher scores on standardized tests (see his summary in the box at right). “The levy substantially increases our ability to meet our goal for our kids: that every child be ready for success in high school, college, and life,” he said. His students speak 22 different languages, and 66 percent are poor enough to qualify for reduced-price or free lunches.

The Mercer Middle School student population, said Principal Susan Toth, faces comparable socioeconomic challenges. “We’re demographically the largest high-poverty school in the state, I think, with 93-94 percent students of color and 76-77 percent free and reduced lunch.” Levy funds support math and reading interventions for students who are lagging or who need accelerated instruction. “We’ve made significant gains over the lifetime of the levy.”

At both schools, levy-backed Community Learning Centers and Middle School Support Programs provide after-school reading and math classes taught by teachers on the faculty who know the curriculum. At Denny the levy also funds a school-based math coach who "coordinates our math planning, core learning goals, measures of progress, prevention, and enrichment” during and after school, said Clark. Four years ago, eighth graders at Denny were far behind the state average in math; now they’re ahead.

Besides extended-day programs at Denny, said Clark, “we run extended-year opportunities entirely funded through the levy during winter break, spring break, and the month of July, to keep kids moving forward in a positive way. They’re taught by Denny staff, who know the kids” and know the school’s performance data.

At Mercer, summer programs in reading, writing, and math “not only eliminate summer loss [of skills] but actually produce gains,” said Toth. Enrichment experiences are offered during summer afternoons, after the academic classes end, because “kids in poverty don’t always get the same opportunities others get. Summer music, art, and cultural programs available in the wider community complement what’s going on in the classroom.”

During the current levy period, Mercer student scores joined the highest achieved in Seattle and the state, said Toth. “In math, 6th-grade scores climbed 47 points to the 78 percent level, 7th-grade scores rose 26, to 73 percent,” and 8th-grade scores are up 20 percent. “It’s nice to say we’ve made these huge gains, but our data is in keeping with schools that don’t look anything like Mercer. Our kids are second only to Eckstein in science,” with their science scores, up 55 points since 2006, now at 84 percent, while a 20-point gain brought them to the 83rd percentile in writing. “We have amazing kids, amazing teachers. We just won an Intel School of Distinction Award for the third year in a row.”

Partnering with families, according to Clark and Toth, accelerates student progress. The levy enables Denny and Mercer staff to make home visits during the summer for an early start on building relationships. Parents of Denny students are asked to tell visiting staff about their child, share their dreams for the child’s future, and suggest ways in which the school can be a partner in making those dreams a reality. “That beginning starts to forge strong relationships, communication, and increased comfort between kids and families and our team here at school,” said Clark.

At Mercer, the levy let Toth bring teachers back to school a week before fall term to conduct over 200 home visits to students. “My teachers say the more we partner with families, the more 6th graders come in empowered, knowing the school, and can start spending their time right away on learning.”

School-based health centers are another essential resource supported by FEL. Clark explained: “Our kids have the natural challenges of adolescence, compounded often by poverty. Having an on-site partner who can help kids navigate through the web of adolescent development in a safe and confidential way is very important.” The center also provides basic health care including physical exams at the school when needed, which helps families surmount “the obstacles of the world of insurance, taking the child out of school, getting to the doctor, taking time off work, all that.”

Toth has used some levy funding at Mercer to hire an on-site therapist who does student mental health assessments, makes referrals, and works with kids’ families. The therapist also works with school staff on addressing students' social and emotional needs as well as helping them through personal or family crises. “We teach them skills to advocate for themselves, feel great about themselves so they can do well in classrooms,” said Toth. “Kids living in poverty have as many or more struggles compared to kids who do not.”

The levy’s investment in the health of students, said Terrance “TJ” Cosgrove, at Public Health - Seattle & King County, is critical to their academic success. He cited University of Washington research ("Adolescent Use of School-based Health Centers and High School Dropout" and "Impact of School-Based Health Center Use on Academic Outcomes") showing that school-based health centers improve the academic performance of children from demographic groups that tend to be less successful in school. Better access to health care increases attendance, raises standardized test scores and GPA’s, and decreases the dropout rate 33 percent, said Cosgrove, making high-risk kids that much more likely to graduate.

Instead of spreading levy funds across the city, FEL requires individual schools to present outcomes-based, best-practices proposals that must be approved before dollars are disbursed. In addition, said Clark, “if we’re not achieving targets along the way, the financial support goes away. There’s a lot of accountability.”

Holly Miller, who heads the FEL oversight committee for the city of Seattle, gave an example of how schools are held accountable in their use of levy funds. When one high school hadn’t met its mid-year target for attendance, “we had a little meeting with them: ‘What’s working? What isn’t?’ The school’s first response was ‘Let’s change how we define attendance.’ ” Miller led them instead to analyze their attendance records, where they saw that the problem was only in certain classrooms. Procedures were changed there, and attendance improved.

FEL regularly sends the schools messages that not only demand results but lead personnel to see how they can be achieved amid the particular circumstances of their own school. “This is why we shifted to the block grant approach in funding,” Miller said. “We make our investments as intelligently as possible in light of the kids in the actual schools. We don’t prescribe ‘do this, do that’; we work with the schools. They’re not allowed to use funds to lower class size for the heck of it. But if they told us there’s a group of 7th graders performing at Level 1 in math, who don’t understand basic operations, we fund effective staff support for those kids.”

Critics cite the lack of more overall, measurable progress. Paul Guppy, vice president for research at the Washington Policy Center, put it this way in a recent blog post:

Levy supporters say imposing a higher financial burden on our low-income elderly neighbors is worth it because the money is supposed to help educate children. In theory they are right — paying taxes to educate children is clearly worth it. In practice that is not happening. If the data showed the Levy actually worked it might be worth renewing it — even doubling it, as proposed. Instead, the Levy has been in place for 20 years and it has not increased the graduation rate or closed the achievement gap, as supporters promised it would do.

Today one in three Seattle public school students drop out and, even more shocking, nearly half of black students fail to graduate (the graduation rate at Seattle’s private schools is 90%). These students are being cheated of the education they were promised.  Voting “yes” on the Levy tells city leaders that’s O.K. Voting “no” on the Levy says failing to educate kids is unacceptable.

Guppy concluded, "City leaders should stop seeking more money and start educating kids."

Educators and city officials say they are holding schools accountable, while making the kind of progress that can reasonably be expected. In its study of the levy, the Municipal League came to this conclusion:

The Municipal League is impressed by the community input, evidence-based decision-making, and accountability measures that have already been put into place by the City and the Levy Oversight Committee. The strong evaluative component offers an excellent opportunity to fine-tune programs and build on success.

Toth at Mercer says high yet flexible standards for each school's use of levy funds get results. “Part of what the levy enables us to do is be responsive to our database and to the needs of our particular school, which might be different from the needs of another school.” Her teachers get space and support for collaborating and for developing curriculum and instruction in light of the school's own data and specific students.

“I’m really proud of this staff,” she said. “They work really hard, and the way the levy intersects with that is it provides them with materials that work for our students, and time to do the innovative work the kids deserve.”


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors