Last fall, the Seattle City Council gave voters a choice between two competing ballot measures that never should have been juxtaposed. One, a Service Employees International Union (SEIU) initiative, would have mandated a raise and a certification program for Seattle’s woefully underpaid child-care workers. The other, pushed by City Councilmember Tim Burgess, funded a pilot program for what advocates hope will eventually become a citywide public preschool program.
Burgess’ staff wanted one grand package including both but split with SEIU over its desire to control the worker certification process. Apparently out of pique, Burgess and the 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 age 6.
The backstory is important because it explains why the City Council was eager to rush Proposition 1B onto last November’s ballot, despite some obvious logistical flaws. But now that 1B is law and the city is actually implementing it, the problems are looking familiar and a lot more difficult. Call it tunnel vision.
Mayor Ed Murray’s office has now 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 existing, private preschools that meet a number of criteria, including academic achievement, curricula, class size and teacher retention.
Murray’s plan has no specific requirements for geographic or racial diversity, but the 40 centers currently believed to be eligible are evenly distributed throughout the city — 27 are south of the ship canal — and one of the plan’s requirements is that the schools to be chosen 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 (SPS), is that SPS literally has no place to put such a program. The district that sparked enormous controversy by its school closure process only a few years ago, has added nearly 1,000 new students each of the last four years and is so overrun 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 our city this decade, that space shortage will only worsen.
Is using private child-care centers significantly better? Oversight is one step further removed from public accountability. The workers generally aren’t paid as well. Using private child-care centers helps the city meet its immediate enrollment goals for the four-year pilot program, but only by displacing kids who’d have otherwise taken those spots.
On short notice, private 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 program, it’ll likely just make it more difficult to find a slot or 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 whose first language isn’t English and it isn’t spoken at home. This was a shortcoming identified even in the early stages of Burgess’ proposal by the Seattle Immigrant and Refugee Commission: “This plan runs the risk of leaving out our refugee and immigrant kids in Seattle.”
A year later, those concerns loom large; the plan’s criteria for choosing centers gives a “Priority Tier No. 3” bonus to those who have “dual language programs,” but that’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 SPS has some of the worst disciplinary rate gaps in the country between white students and students of color, especially African Americans and Native Americans.
A better program later?
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 — with the eager backing of politicians like Burgess and Murray — 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 bigger than the actual benefit.
GEOV PARRISH is cofounder of Eat the State! He also reviews news of the week on “Mind Over Matters” on KEXP 90.3 FM. To comment on this column, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.