Last fall, Seattle’s city council gave voters a choice between two competing ballot measures that never should have been juxtaposed. One, an SEIU initiative, would have mandated a raise and a certification program for Seattle’s woefully underpaid childcare workers. The other, a measure pushed by city council member Tim Burgess, funded a pilot program for what advocates hope will eventually become a citywide public preschool program.
Burgess’s staff wanted one grand package including both, but would not go along with SEIU’s desire to control the worker certification process. So SEIU collected signatures for its own initiative, and apparently out of pique, Burgess and city council took the unprecedented step of forcing voters to choose between the two measures based on the flimsy rationale that both involved kids under the age of six. And, presumably, because both were written in English. Or something. The calculation was obvious and, as it turned out, correct: far more voters’ families were directly affected by a program that gives children a better start on learning than one that pays a relative handful of childcare workers (about 1,500) a living wage ahead of the already-scheduled minimum wage increase. The preschool measure passed easily.
The back story is important because it explains why city council was eager to rush Proposition 1B onto the ballot last November despite some obvious logistical flaws, and why voters were willing to approve it despite those same concerns. But now that 1B is law and the city is actually implementing it, the problems are looking a lot more difficult. Call it tunnel vision.
On Feb. 27, Mayor Ed Murray’s office released its implementation plan for the first year of the program, which launches in September with the 2015-16 school year. Under the plan, the city will offer vouchers to the families of 2,000 children to attend about 14 (the exact number will depend on the city budget) existing, private preschools that meet a number of criteria, including academic achievement, curricula, class size, and teacher retention. While there are no specific requirements for location or racial diversity, the 40 centers currently believed to be eligible are evenly distributed through the city (27 are south of the Ship Canal), and one of the requirements is that the schools serve kids from families with mixed income levels.
That said, one of the simplest reasons the city decided to issue vouchers to existing centers rather than, say, develop a program though Seattle Public Schools, is that SPS literally has no place to put such a program. The district that only a few years ago sparked enormous controversy by its school closure process is now so overstuffed with new enrollment that some kids are learning in mobile trailers. With tens of thousands more new, mostly young tech workers and their families expected to move into the city this decade, that space shortage will only worsen.
Is using private childcare centers significantly better? It helps the city meet its immediate goals for the four-year pilot program, but only by displacing kids who’d have otherwise taken those spots – on short notice, childcare centers can’t expand their physical plants any faster than the school district can. Exactly the opposite, since the district has far greater financial resources. And since the pilot program may not be renewed, how many centers will build based on a market expansion that might go away in four years? At best, the city plan gives more income diversity to existing centers, but for families not in the city program, it’ll likely just make it harder to find a slot, or to find one that meets families’ location, schedule, or income limitations.
While the city program will help with income diversity, and (by extension) with racial diversity, one of the biggest challenges facing SPS is kids for whom English isn’t their first language and isn’t spoken at home. There is a “Priority Tier #3” bonus, in the criteria the city will use to pick centers, given to those who have “dual language programs,” but that’s not the same as ESL instruction – it’s meant for high-achieving kids, not the children of immigrant families. The mayor’s plan also includes a nod to instructors having “cultural competence.” But then, so does every SPS strategic plan, and it has some of the worst disciplinary rate gaps in the country between white students and students of color, especially African-Americans and Native Americans.
Overall, Murray’s implementation plan is full of such lofty sentiments. In real life, the best thing that can be said is that in a city that is rapidly getting whiter and wealthier, perhaps the pilot program will help generate the political support needed for a far more expensive, fully universal program, and perhaps that program will have worked out the worst of the wrinkles after the first four years. Until then, the headlines will likely be greater than the actual benefit.