Last fall, the Seattle City Council gave voters a choice between two competing ballot measures that never should have been juxtaposed. One, a Sevice Employees International Union (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 Chair 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 he would not go along with SEIU’s desire to control the worker certification process. So SEIU collected signatures for its own initiative, and Burgess and the city council took the unprecedented step of forcing voters to choose between the two completely unrelated measures. The calculation was obvious: Far more voters were directly affected by a preschool 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. The preschool measure passed easily.
The backstory is important because it explains why the city council was eager to rush the preschool measure — then called 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 existing private preschools. The 40 centers that currently meet the city’s criteria 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 from mixed income levels.
That said, one of the simplest reasons the city decided to issue vouchers rather than, say, develop a program though Seattle Public Schools (SPS), is that SPS has no place to put it. The district is so overstuffed with new enrollment that some kids are learning in trailers. That space shortage will only worsen in coming years.
Is using private 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, either. And since the pilot preschool program may not be renewed, centers may be built due to the unreliable concept of market expansion. The city plan gives existing centers more income diversity, 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 and (by extension) racial diversity, one of the 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 the city will give to preschool centers that have “dual language programs.” But that’s not the same as English as a Second Language instruction for immigrant children. 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 racial disciplinary rate gaps in the country.
Overall, Murray’s implementation plan is full of 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. Until then, the headlines will likely be greater than the actual benefit.