With Election Day nearing, the backers of two opposing preschool measures on Seattle's November ballot are finding it difficult to play nice.
Mayor Ed Murray stumped for Proposition 1B on Thursday at a downtown YMCA. Addressing a room full of the initiative's supporters and a handful of reporters, the mayor stressed that the measure includes a property tax levy that would fund the preschool tuition coverage it proposes. Supporters of Proposition 1B who appeared with Murray knocked the opposing Proposition 1A as an ill-conceived plan that would put crushing new demands on the city budget, which could rise to around $100 million annually.
Erica Mullen, executive of education initiatives for the YMCA of Greater Seattle, said of Proposition 1A, "It is completely unfunded. It contains huge and costly unfunded mandates. If it is passed it could lead to huge cuts to other public priorities like public safety."
"If it passes the city will likely have to give up its plan to offer universal preschool," she added.
That $100 million figure is based on a cost estimate the City Budget Office prepared earlier this year. Backers of Proposition 1A say the estimate is wildly inaccurate.
"It's politically motivated and it doesn't have any basis in fact," said Heather Weiner, a spokeswoman for the Proposition 1A campaign. She added: "The city has become so negative in its attacks against 1A."
Both sides are concerned that the dueling, and similar-sounding, initiatives will leave voters confused. Casting a vote for one of the measures actually involves answering two questions on the ballot. The first question is: "Should either of these measures be enacted into law?" The second asks if one of the two measures passes, "which one should it be?"
"Right now, my sense is that people are going to vote no on the first question," Weiner said.
Backed by SEIU Local 925 and American Federation of Teachers, Washington, Proposition 1A calls for a $15 minimum wage for early childhood educators, would prohibit violent felons from providing childcare and seeks to reduce the cost of childcare to less than 10 percent of the income for families in the city. It would also put in place new certification and training requirements for childcare workers and preschool teachers and would create a city fund to help smaller providers cover the new training and wage expenses.
Proposition 1B, which is backed by the mayor and members of the Seattle City Council, includes a property tax levy that would equal about $43 a year for a family living in a $400,000 home. The levy would raise as much as $58.2 million over a period of up to four years. That money would be used to help cover pre-school costs for families with 3- and 4-year-olds. Pre-school would be free for families making up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $71,550 for a four-person household. Families making more than that amount would be eligible for a subsidy that varies based on income.
"We start small, we pay for it, we get those slots going," Murray said. "1B is an opportunity not just to get it right, but to get it right and pay for it."
The gaping discrepancy over the costs has to do with the assumptions about what the city would be legally required to pay for if voters approve Proposition 1A. Using estimates they described as conservative, the City Budget Office staffers calculated the start-up cost for the measure as $112 million to $141 million in the first year and between $78 million and $107 million annually in the following years.
Among those costs are $30 million to $48 million to ensure that no family pays more than 10 percent of their income for childcare, and $39 million in initial costs and $11 million in ongoing expenses to pay for the new training requirements.
But Weiner said the Budget Office is making the wrong assumptions, and that the costs that are actually mandated in the initiative are far less, closer to $3 million. About $2.3 million of that money would fund a professional development institute that would provide the new training, according to estimates prepared by the Proposition 1A campaign.
"The claim that it's $100 million is laughable," she said. Weiner added that ultimately it would be up to the City Council to decide the scope of some parts of the initiative if it were to pass. "Any legislation could cost $100 million it just depends on what the implementing body decides to do with it."
Studies have found that attending preschool improves educational outcomes later in life. Councilmember Tim Burgess has championed the issue on the Seattle City Council and has put his full weight behind Proposition 1B. For guidance, Burgess, Murray and other city officials have looked to existing preschool programs in cities such as Boston and Washington, D.C.
On Thursday, the mayor said that it was not the time to go back to the drawing board to find a compromise between the two competing measures.
"We are losing children every day," Murray said, adding that he gets reports every morning that detail the number of young African-American men in the city who were wounded by gun violence the prior day. "We can't wait, we need to move forward, this is our opportunity."