Seattle City Council Sends Two Early Childhood Initiatives To Voters

Jun 24, 2014

The Seattle City Council has floated two pieces of legislation for universal preschool.
The Seattle City Council has floated two pieces of legislation for universal preschool.
Credit Flickr Photo/a.pasquier

The Seattle City Council voted on Monday to send two competing early childhood education initiatives to voters this fall. One initiative was proposed by council President Tim Burgess and Mayor Ed Murray, and the other by a union that represents child care workers.

Burgess said the council’s vote on his Seattle Preschool Program was historic. "It’s not very often that elected officials get to make decisions and advance public policy that has the potential to change lives so fundamentally that an entire city can be uplifted," Burgess said.

The Preschool Program would pay for up to 2,000 free or reduced-price preschool slots for three- and four-year-olds by the time it was fully phased in in 2018. It would be funded by a property tax levy of approximately $58 million. That would amount to $43 per year for the owner of a home assessed at $400,000.

Councilmember Tim Burgess, left, County Executive Dow Constantine and Mayor Ed Murray were part of a delegation from Seattle that visited Boston and New Jersey to learn about their universal preschool models.
Councilmember Tim Burgess, left, County Executive Dow Constantine and Mayor Ed Murray were part of a delegation from Seattle that visited Boston and New Jersey to learn about their universal preschool models.
Credit Flickr Photo/Dan Nolte

Tuition would be free for families that make 300 percent of the federal poverty level or less, or about $72,000 a year for a family of four. 

Higher-income families would pay tuition on a sliding scale basis.

An amendment approved Monday raised the income threshold for free preschool by about $24,000, qualifying many more families, and lowered the subsidy for high-earning families.

Although the program would enroll only a fraction of the city's three- and four-year-olds, Burgess said the emphasis on quality over quantity sets the stage for success and possible expansion.

Still, child care workers from the Service Employees International Union and American Federation of Teachers told the council in public testimony that the Seattle Preschool Program doesn't go far enough.

What the city needs as well, they argued, is the SEIU's separate initiative petition measure that would, among other things, raise the minimum wage for child care workers to $15 an hour on a shorter timeline than the city's recently passed $15 minimum wage law, and it would require that child care providers be trained and certified by a new city-sponsored agency.

Some council members, including Burgess, have called the SEIU measure an unfunded mandate that would conflict with the Seattle Preschool Program. Burgess points to the different standards for worker training: The city proposal would require preschool teachers in its program to have or be working toward a bachelor's degree, while the union initiative would require lesser certification but demand it of all child care workers.

The council and the unions have tried for weeks to reach a compromise between the two measures, to no avail. But Councilmember Mike O’Brien said he sees how the initiatives could work side-by-side.

"I find it unfortunate at this time that we have so many advocates in the community trying to do what’s best for our community and our young kids, and we’re at a point where we’ve reached this impasse," O'Brien said.

O'Brien, Nick Licata and Kshama Sawant voted in favor of the union measure, but it was rejected 6 to 3.

The council's rejection of the SEIU measure sends it to the fall ballot alongside the Preschool Program. As competing measures, voters will have to decide between the two, or neither.