Mayor Durkan unveils proposal for unified education levy

This morning, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced her proposal for a single property tax levy to replace two that expire at the end of this year: the Families and Education Levy and the Seattle Preschool Levy. It would also fund her Seattle Promise college tuition program.

Durkan’s Families, Education, Preschool and Promise Levy would raise $636.5 million over seven years, as a continuation of the $236 million, 7-year Families and Education Levy and the $58 million, 4-year Seattle Preschool Levy. It focuses on investments in four areas:

  1. Preschool. The Seattle Preschool Levy, passed in 2014, launched a pilot program offering high-quality preschool to some of the city’s most vulnerable children. In its first year it served 280 children in 15 classrooms, and since then it has grown to more than 1000 children in 54 classrooms. The new levy aims to take  that up to 2500 students in the 2025-2026 school year. The total cost for the 7-year ramp-up starting next year is $363 million — more than half of the entire levy revenues.
  2. K-12 and Community Based Investments. This is a set of “wrap around” programs to supplement what Seattle Public Schools offers, including after-school and summer learning programs, tutoring, college and career readiness centers, programming that engages families in student learning, and programs addressing homeless students. The Families and Education Levy will raise  about $34 million this year for these programs; the new levy proposes an average annual investment of $23.4 million.
  3. K-12 School Health. The current Families and Education levy invests $6.8 million this year on student health programs, “to reduce health-related barriers to learning so that students can achieve academically, complete school, and be prepared for college and/or careers after high school by investing in school-based health programs located at Seattle Public Schools.” The new levy proposes to broaden those efforts with an annual investment of $9.4 million, to be spent on “preventative care services, mental health screening, counseling, care coordination, and referral for drug/alcohol and dental services.”
  4. Seattle Promise. Durkan’s signature program builds on the existing 13th Year Promise scholarship program that offers one year of free community college tuition to students graduating from Seattle’s public high schools. The city committed $1.4. million in this year’s budget to help build an endowment for the 13th Year Promise program, but Durkan’s plan would dramatically expand what the program offers. It would include two years of tuition assistance, college preparation during high schools, college and career advising, financial assistance for other college-related expenses, and other various forms of assistance.  The new levy would devote $6.3 million annually, $43.8 million in total, to the program.

The current two levies will raise about $61.5 million this year. The new levy’s annual take is projected at $91.0 million — lower at the beginning of the seven years, but ramping up as the Preschool Program grows. And that’s really the story of the levy proposal: the combined investments in K-12 wrap-around programs, student health, and the Seattle Promise program will be approximately flat from the current levels, but the Seattle Preschool Program will grow from the $20.6 million spend this year to an average of $51.9 million over the next seven years — more than all the other programs in the levy combined.

That’s not to suggest it isn’t money well spent: there is a mountain of evidence that preschool programs are one of the most important interventions for improving long-term educational and economic outcomes, particularly for underserved and vulnerable populations. And an early evaluation of the Seattle Preschool Program shows that it’s on par with peer programs in other cities.

In the coming weeks, Durkan’s office will officially submit the legislation to the City Council. The Council must then approve it, after any amendments it chooses to make, to appear on the ballot in the fall for voter approval. The deadline for an August ballot is May 11; it seems very unlikely that the Council could move it through that quickly. At this point a much more reasonable timeline would be to approve it by August 7th for the November ballot — a general election for Congressional seats, which would guarantee a higher voter turnout.

This morning at her press conference announcing her levy proposal, Durkan was joined by Council members Johnson, Juarez, Mosqueda and Gonzalez. That’s a very good start for building majority support on the Council. The politics are tricky, both in deciding how much money to ask for, and deciding whether to bundle the two expiring levies together into a single replacement. There is much debate in City Hall as to whether “tax fatigue” is setting in, particularly in the context of the other recent tax measures (income, soda, employee hours) that the City Council has been pushing through, Sound Transit’s car-tab mess, and the state legislature’s fiddling with property taxes to pay for public education and get the McCleary court case behind it. The Mayor has chosen to put all the eggs in one basket, though with a modest increase over the expiring levies. The city’s politicians have been paying for polls to guide their choices on the levy; while they are not sharing the results, one can assume they have a good sense for how the wind is blowing in Seattle (at least for now).


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