The city of Seattle is asking voters to approve a seven-year, $619 million property tax measure to pay for a range of investments in education. It combines two expiring levies and adds funding for community college tuition.
The new levy is called the Families, Education, Preschool and Promise Levy. It replaces the expiring Seattle Preschool Levy that funds a city-run preschool program aimed at making preschool affordable and free for some families, depending on their income. It also replaces the Families and Education Levy that invests in K-12 education. That’s been used to fund such things as school-based health centers, summer programs and family support workers.
The new tax measure would expand the preschool program, continue K-12 programs and also be used to pay for two years of tuition and non-tuition financial support for Seattle Public Schools graduates who go to one of Seattle's community colleges.
Several students at Seattle Central College said they think it’s a good idea. Tuition costs about $1,200 a quarter for a resident of Washington taking 12 credits, which is considered a full-time student. Students can access state financial aid programs such as the State Need Grant and the College Bound Scholarship. But some said that it can be tough to pursue higher education when you factor in other costs such as housing and textbooks.
“I have to worry about how much I’m spending on this and that,” said Levi Sleight, a student at Seattle Central. “I don’t pay very much rent, luckily. I still live with my parents, so that helps a lot. I don’t know if I could do it if I paid full rent somewhere.”
Sleight, who uses the pronouns they/them, works at a video store in White Center to pay tuition and hasn't yet gotten financial aid because of a paperwork snafu. They said they know other students who work in order to earn enough to pay tuition and can't take a full course load because of that.
Adding two years’ of community college tuition to the levy fulfills one of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s campaign promises. She said the levy is aimed at addressing disparities in educational results for kids of color and low-income children, an issue that the Seattle school district has been focused on.
“The only way to fix it is you have to start early, give them what they deserve and need and continue that quality all the way through and then give them two years’ free college so that they are there in this very competitive economic environment that is Seattle and this prosperity we’re seeing can be shared to more people,” Durkan said.
According to the city’s Department of Education and Early Learning, out of $637.8 million in levy funds that are proposed to be spent over the next seven years, $341.8 million would go the preschool program, $188.1 million would go to K-12 school and community-based investments, $67.2 million toward K-12 school health and $40.7 million for the community college tuition program called Seattle Promise.
The measure has generated opposition. The League of Women Voters of Seattle-King County came out against it, citing as one reason the lack of clarity from the city on whether the levy funds could go to charter schools.
There are several charter schools in Seattle, but a majority of voters here opposed creating charters when it was on the statewide ballot in 2012. Charter schools are privately run schools that are authorized by the Washington State Charter School Commission or school districts and are paid for with state lottery revenue.
“The City Attorney’s office is still reviewing this question at this time,” Austin Miller, a spokesman for the Department of Education and Early Learning, said in an email. “Once a determination has been made, the city will follow whatever is legally required.”
That open question is one reason why education blogger Melissa Westbrook has said she plans to vote against the levy. Another reason is taxpayer fatigue.
Seattle voters have approved some big levies in recent years, including a housing levy and one for transportation investments, and the Seattle school district is preparing to put two levies on the ballot in February.
“I have to say, I wonder how much is enough and what homeowners are going to think when they look down,” Westbrook said during a panel discussion on the levy on Seattle Channel’s City Inside/Out program. “For me, if I had to choose, I would support the Seattle schools levies.”
The city said this will cost the median homeowner $248 per year compared with $136 for the two expiring levies. That's a little over $9 extra per month. The King County Assessor's office has a tool on its web site where people can plug in an address to calculate how much property tax Proposition 1 will add to their tax bill.