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Seattle's Families and Education Levy expands goals, money requests over the years

Nearly half of the 2011 Families and Education levy proposal focuses on early learning. It would also increases support for elementary school children and college and career preparation.
Seattle Office for Education
Nearly half of the 2011 Families and Education levy proposal focuses on early learning. It would also increases support for elementary school children and college and career preparation.

As schools and family service providers across the state struggle with budget cuts, taxpayers are being asked to help out more. In Seattle, the city council is gearing up to put the Families and Education Levy back on the ballot. Voters have renewed it every time it’s come up since former Mayor Norm Rice created it in 1990, but some people might not realize how much it’s changed. 

The first Families and Education Levy didn’t try to tackle all the problems facing Seattle’s children. Its goals were just to help them be safe, healthy and ready to learn. That meant paying for more early learning programs and human service-type activities at middle and high schools, such as health clinics and after school programs.

Setting Manageable Goals

The idea was that if the levy supported those services, the school district could put more of its funding into classrooms, says Holly Miller, director of the city’s Office for Education:

“I think there was this notion that education is the paramount duty of the state and the state needs to fund those programs and then let us invest in some of the wraparound kinds of services that the city could more easily take on and manage than academic achievement, per se,” she says.

While voters renewed the 7-year levy in the late 90’s, she says there was a growing consensus that more needed to be done. Especially with kids of color and their academic needs. Sid Sidorowicz managed the 2004 levy renewal under Mayor Greg Nickels and says the administration wanted to create more specific strategies to see what the city could really accomplish with the money:

“They kept hearing, we’re much more interested in academic achievement," he says. "You know, we like what the levy’s done, we like the programs they have, but half of our kids are dropping out of school and there’s got to be something better."

Creating Benchmarks to Measure Progress

The goal of the levy became helping kids graduate on time. It made the following changes to accomplish that:

  • Instead of funding general programs for all kids, the money was targeted toward those farthest behind in middle and high schools.
  • It continued supporting early learning programs to get kids up to speed to enter kindergarten.
  • For the first time, it relied on data to measure whether services supported by the levy were meeting benchmarks set by the city.

The cost of the levy grew from $69 million to $117 million. Voters didn’t blink.
From Cradle to Career

Now the city wants to up the ante. The latest proposal would expand successful programs to include elementary school kids. One of the biggest differences, as KPLU has reported, would be to not only help kids graduate, but do so ready for college or technical training.

The latest plan requires twice as much money as the current levy. For the average homeowner, it’ll now cost about $124 a year. City leaders are quick to assure taxpayers that, despite recent revelations about financial mismanagement in Seattle Public Schools, money from the Families and Education levy is administered by the city and carefully watched. Miller says they've passed 2 audits with no exceptions.

"We've gotten much better at setting targets and at tracking outcomes," she says. "We not only track what's happening substantively to kids, but we track every dollar and every dime that is being invested."

If the city council approves the measure at its meeting today, it’ll be on the November ballot.

Charla joined us in January, 2010 and is excited to be back in Seattle after several years in Washington, DC, where she was a director and producer for NPR. Charla has reported from three continents and several outlets including Marketplace, San Francisco Chronicle and NPR. She has a master of journalism from University of California, Berkeley and a bachelor's degree in architecture from University of Washington.