We've seen a veritable parade of contentious political battles march through City Hall this year, from the $15 minimum wage to rideshare regulation to parks funding. But if you were hoping for a break from the brawling? Too bad. There's a new fight in town, and it's one that will almost certainly keep going all the way to November: the fight over public preschool.
After a year's worth of work carefully researching and crafting a policy, the city council and the mayor this spring proposed a pilot preschool program they'd send to the fall ballot. If voters approve it, it'll be paid for by a four-year, $58 million property tax levy, costing average homeowners a little more than $3.50 a month. (Research shows that quality pre-K programs, among many benefits, can increase graduation rates and reduce incarceration rates; they offer generous returns on the public investment.) Starting in the 2015 school year, 280 of Seattle's 3- and 4-year-olds will have access to publicly funded preschool with sliding scale tuition, with free tuition for low-income families. That will ramp up annually until it serves 2,000 preschoolers in the 2018 school year. (There are approximately 12,000 3- and 4-year-olds in the city.) The plan is to expand enrollment even further if all goes well. Mayor Ed Murray's proposal cites an eventual "goal of serving all eligible and interested children within 20 years."
While that limited scale and slow ramp-up is deliberate to keep quality standards high as the program grows, according to city council president Tim Burgess, not everyone's thrilled.
"We're not critiquing their proposal at all," says Karen Strickland, president of the state affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). But then she goes on to, well, critique their proposal: "But in the best of worlds, it ramps up in 20 years, and then just for 3- and 4-year-olds." AFT and SEIU 925, a union that represents child-care providers, have proposed their own preschool and child-care initiative, called I-107, offering a broader set of regulations they say are intended to reduce staff turnover and improve the quality of child care for kids of all ages.
Their initiative seems to have started out as a bargaining tactic. The unions, forming a campaign called Yes for Early Success, gathered signatures on their initiative but offered to hold off on officially submitting them while they entered negotiations with the city.
"This initiative didn't come out of thin air," Strickland says. "It's something we've been working on for a long time." If the city is trying to tackle the problem of expensive and yet variable-quality child care in the city, their campaign argued that the city should incorporate some of their ideas—particularly the creation of a training institute, likely union-led, to facilitate increased training requirements by centralizing where workers go for information. A one-stop shop for teacher training, if you will.
But while they met with city staffers and politicians numerous times while the city council and the mayor's office were crafting their pre-K policy, the two sides never reached an agreement. Whose fault that is, of course, depends on whom you ask.
"My understanding is that the city made a generous offer to create a training program that included the unions," says Sandeep Kaushik, the campaign consultant for the city's proposal, Quality Pre-K for Our Kids. "And they said that wasn't enough and that they wanted to go to the ballot."
Strickland says the unions weren't the ones to walk away. She says the city simply refused to expand beyond the limited scope of the pilot program. "People said, 'We're offering you a chance to get in the tent,'" she recalls. "But the tent was so small and addressed such a small part of the population that it wasn't going to address the crisis as we see it." The unions are quick to say they support universal pre-K, they just think the policy should be broader; Kaushik says union concerns about training are valid and are addressed by the city proposal. But they couldn't agree on a middle ground.
Now Yes for Early Success is running with their initiative, which does a host of things, from increasing the minimum wage for child-care workers at a faster rate than the city's new $15 wage law to directing the city to establish a policy that families shouldn't pay more than 10 percent of their income toward child care.
And the fighting continues. The city budget office, in a fiscal analysis, has said the requirements in Yes for Early Success's I-107 could cost the city upwards of $100 million a year, with no funding mechanism included, which would devastate the budget. Yes for Early Success spokeswoman Heather Weiner calls that analysis "fictional" and "politically driven," adding that most of the provisions are merely "aspirational" and wouldn't require any city money; she pegs the costs at about $3 million.
Much to the chagrin of the I-107 campaign, the city has also put the two measures on the ballot as competing items on the same issue, meaning voters will have to choose between the two instead of voting on each one individually. In response, Yes for Early Success has taken the city to court, asking a judge to separate the measures. If they don't prevail, a group of preschool and child-care workers will be in the awkward position of spending the next few months campaigning against a universal pre-K program, one of the most widely supported and well-researched progressive policy measures out there.
When do we find out what will happen? The hearing is set for the morning of Friday, August 15.