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Seattle Voters Must Choose Between Mayor's Pre-K Program, Union-Backed Childcare Plan

Kyle Stokes

Two proposals dealing with early childhood learning will appear on Seattle ballots this November, but only one can win.

That's the electoral scenario Seattle City Council members set up Monday with their vote to put a proposed preschool pilot program on the November ballot, formally asking voters to hike property taxes to join cities like Denver and Boston in funding an early childhood education program aimed at low-income families.

But voters will have to make a choice. They can approve either the pilot program or Initiative 107, a union-backed citizens' initiative that raises the minimum wage to $15 an hour for more than 4,000 childcare workers and creates a training program for early childhood educators. 

Voters must choose because the council decided, by a 6-3 vote, that the two initiatives conflict on several points. Under state law, the council has the authority to decide whether initiatives are in conflict with each other, and if so, the council can present the two measures to voters as an either-or choice, said council president Tim Burgess.

"I know the proponents of 107 don't like that approach, but we felt pretty strongly we needed to adhere to the state statute," Burgess said.

Burgess has said he would have preferred not to see I-107 on the ballot at all. He had "intensive conversations" with representatives of the unions backing the measure — SEIU and the American Federation of Teachers — over several months in hopes of addressing their concerns without I-107 moving forward.

Instead of arriving at compromise, I-107 supporters now say they'll have to campaign against the city's proposed preschool program, which they'd otherwise support.

"It's a horrible situation because voters are going to be forced to choose between two good programs," said Heather Weiner, a spokesperson for "Yes For Early Success," the group behind I-107. "We should be able to have both programs — one that's a controlled experiment for a limited number of children, which is what the city wants to do, and then one that's a wider, grassroots-oriented education program for all teachers across the city."

Weiner said I-107 backers filed an ethics complaint against the city council on Monday, saying members violated open meeting laws and used city resources to campaign against I-107. Approached shortly after the meeting, Burgess told KPLU he had not yet seen the complaint.

"That's news to me. I can assure you we followed exactly what city ordinance and state statutes require, so I'm not worried about that at all," he said.

Burgess, who has been pushing for a preschool program for more than a year, linked the initiative with the council's recent wage vote as landmark legislation members had been able to pass this year.

"It isn't very often where elected officials get to make decisions and advance public policy that has the potential to change lives so fundamentally that an entire city can be uplifted," he said during Monday's meeting.

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.