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How Seattle's Involvement In Education Is Unique Among Cities

Kyle Stokes
Mayor Ed Murray pictured prior to his election in 2013.

Like in many cities around the country, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray says he isn't interested in running the local public school district, but he is interested in how well the city's children do in school.

It's why Murray will propose to roll several youth-focused programs into one new city-level education department when he submits his budget proposal to the Seattle City Council next week.

But unlike other cities where the mayor's office doesn't control the local school district, Murray directs the spending of millions of city dollars on Seattle Public Schools. That's a unique niche for a mayor, policy experts say, and Murray's proposed Department of Education and Early Learning only deepens it.

"Very rarely do I see a Department of Education with a sizeable staff created within the mayor's office" unless the city controls the local district or school board, said Brown University education professor Kenneth Wong, who tracks how municipalities and school districts interact.

Traditional City Ed Investments — With A K-12 Twist

The city's special fiscal interest in education is not exactly novel. Voters first passed the Families and Education Levy in 1990, generating dollars for then-Mayor Norm Rice to direct to early learning programs, child health initiatives and to Seattle Public Schools. Voters have reauthorized the levy three times, often in greater amounts.

Seattle's Families and Education Levy generated around $30 million in funding last school year, and nearly half of it went to specific K-12 schools in the city, paying for things like additional learning time, after-school programs and programs to ease the transition from middle to high school in Seattle Public Schools.

The city's proposed department would put the levy program under one roof with the city's more traditional initiatives, such as a youth violence initiative and child care programming.

"There's clearly more to coordinate, more to make sure is being well-managed and knit together well in Seattle," said Clifford Johnson, executive director of the Institute for Youth, Education and Families, a think-tank within the National League of Cities.

The National Picture: What's Normal And What's Not

"But I don't want to overstate the differences here," Johnson added. "Many large cities, cities the size of Seattle, have large city departments that are focused on children and families."

For instance, San Antonio and Denver have city-affiliated preschool programs. Johnson also notes San Francisco collects a tax similar to the Families and Education Levy, making Seattle's tax "not quite one-of-a-kind."

"Virtually every big city mayor in America has reached the correct conclusion that education is too important to the future of his or her city to sit on the sidelines. Mayors may or may not understand that you don't control the school system," Johnson said. "But [voters] sure as heck are going to hold you responsible at the end of the day for whether the city is thriving or stagnating, and education's going to play a big role in that."

Integration Into 'One Coherent Unit'

However, mayors often step into the education arena with initiatives to support the K-12 school system, Wong says, rather than to directly fund it.

"The integration of dispersed, fragmentary resources into one coherent unit — that signals a strong commitment on the part of the mayor to get more involved in the core functioning of the K-12 system," Wong said.

And the Center for Reinventing Public Education's executive director Robin Lake says the beefed-up department, empowered by a budget totaling nearly $49 million, would be better positioned to align their priorities with the Seattle Public Schools.

"[The Families and Education Levy] tends to be disconnected from what the school board is doing. It sounds like what they're trying to do is make their role more tightly connected to the school district," Lake said.

But if the city's K-12 role makes the proposed Department of Education and Early Learning unique, the department's future would likely change significantly if voters approve the city's proposal to hike property taxes to expand preschool offerings.

The preschool program and its $14.5 million in annual revenue would likely fall under the purview of the new department should voters pass it and not a competing, union-backed ballot initiative on childcare.

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