King County voters will decide on a levy focused on helping young children get a strong start in life.
The Best Starts for Kids levy would raise about $390 million over six years to pay for an array of services aimed at improving the prospects of disadvantaged children. But critics say the tax could hurt the very people it purports to help.
On a sunny afternoon at Crossroads Park in Bellevue, Peggy Rueber is watching as her son Mason eats grapes at a picnic table – and tries to feed them back to his teacher.
“That’s his latest thing," Rueber said. "He’s figured out we all feed him with spoons and forks and so he tries to force feed us."
This park is next to Kindering Center, which provides education and therapies for kids with special needs and their families.
At age 2, Mason hasn’t started talking yet. He also has cognitive, growth and motor delays. But once he’s finished his grapes, Mason grabs his walker and toddles as fast as he can to join the other kids on the playground.
When Mason was born his needs were so great that his mom quit her job to care for him full time.
Rueber said she relied on the therapists at Kindering to figure out how to help Mason with his many challenges and help her work with him at home.
“So going from having a steady income to being unemployed, and my husband being underemployed and still struggling to make ends meet, there is no possible way we could have provided any of these things for him without the assistance of Kindering, without the assistance of the public health system,” Rueber said.
Identifying and treating developmental delays early is one of the goals of the Best Starts for Kids levy on King County’s fall ballot. Created by county Executive Dow Constantine, it would pay for a wide range of prevention and early intervention services for children and families.
"We spend a lot of time and money trying to put band-aids on problems, trying to make up for the failure to invest in people early," Constantine said. "We’ve made very little room to make those early investments, to invest in prevention, and intervention, and the things that will keep people on track to have a productive life."
The initiative doesn’t specify the programs the levy would fund, that would be decided later. But half of the money would go toward services for pregnant women and young children, like the county’s Nurse-Family Partnership program.
That program pays for nurses to make home visits to first-time, low-income parents from pregnancy through the child’s second birthday.
Constantine said he didn’t fully realize the importance of those early years until he visited the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences.
He said the center’s research on how infant brain development shapes children’s ability to learn later in life changed his perspective.
"I think I, like most people, assumed that kids are tough. And they might get off to a difficult start, but kindergarten and school will take care of things," he said. "That’s not how it works. We know scientifically that’s not how it works: The earliest days are the most important days and we need to be focusing effort on making sure that every kid gets off to the best start possible."
Along with early childhood interventions, a third of the levy would fund services for older children and young adults, like mental health care and substance abuse prevention.
The rest would go mostly to youth and family homelessness prevention and other programs for at-risk communities.
But Paul Guppy, vice president for research at the Washington Policy Center, a free-market advocacy group, said the levy would fund a lot of services that are already in existence.
“We just see a lot of duplication. It creates a new property tax to create a brand new program with a different level of government that seems to be doing the same thing that several other agencies are already doing,” Guppy said.
The Best Starts for Kids levy would cost the owner of a $500,000 home about $70 a year.
Guppy acknowledges that that isn’t a lot of money, but he said the property tax burden falls hardest on the people the levy aims to help.
“Seattle is asking for a big road levy right now. Next year Sound Transit is going to ask for something like a $15 billion tax increase. The state is looking at higher taxes for schools. Our point is that each of these proposals is seen in isolation. But when you add it all together, especially a regressive tax, you have to be sensitive about how this affects families,” he said.
Constantine counters that the initial investment in young people will pay dividends by helping them become productive members of society and saving taxpayers money down the road.