If elected, Jenny Durkan would create a program in the first year of her administration to offer all graduates of Seattle Public Schools two years of free community college, the mayoral candidate announced today.
The program, modeled off an existing South Seattle scholarship program, would offer Seattle graduates, including undocumented students, counseling for their transition to college and then up to two years of tuition at any community college or technical college in Washington State. The program would not apply to four-year universities.
“What I hear time and time again is people are feeling like there’s just no opportunity for them in Seattle," Durkan said today. "Too many of the jobs in Seattle are going to people who moved to Seattle, but kids who are growing up here don’t have that same economic opportunity."
The program would cost $4 to $5 million in the first year, increasing to an eventual $7 million a year. Durkan's estimates are based off serving a quarter of the 2,900 students who graduate from Seattle Pulbic Schools each year.
Durkan has not yet determined exactly how she would pay for the program. The soda tax and an expected renewal of the existing property tax-funded education levy could be potential funding sources, she said, as well as money from Sound Transit 3. Last year's light rail package included $500 million in taxes for education programs across the region. (That funding came about thanks to then-state Rep. Jessyn Farrell, who also ran for mayor this year but didn't make it through the primary election.)
"It is clear looking at the budget today that we do not have to come up with new revenue sources," Durkan said.
Durkan also pledged to work on closing the achievement gap, connecting kids with jobs, and finding additional money for books, transportation, and other expenses that come along with going to college.
Several programs offering free college already exist in Seattle. Seattle Central College's Seattle Promise (yes, it has the same name) is a scholarship fund that supported 230 students last year and has a goal of paying the full tuition of any Seattle Central student with financial need who maintains a 3.0 GPA. The state's College Bound program asks middle school students to pledge to stay in school and then helps them pay for college. And the 13th Year Promise scholarship program, off of which Durkan is modeling her proposal, gives graduates of several public high schools a year of community college tuition. That program has gotten significant support from the City of Seattle during Mayor Ed Murray's term, expanding to more schools. The city's new soda tax will also kick $5 million in additional money to that program. When he unveiled the soda tax proposal in April, Murray said that funding for the 13th Year Promise amounted to "providing one free year of college at one of our... Seattle colleges [formerly called community colleges] to all public school students who graduate." According to 13th Year Promise, 50 percent of participants said they would not have attended college if not for the program.
“What I’ve heard is there is not one holistic program for every kid," Durkan said. Asked what success would look like for a tuition program, Durkan said, "it will be the exception that kids don’t start a program for college. It is a necessary road to success right now, particularly to the types of jobs that are coming open."
Soon after Durkan's announcement, her opponent Cary Moon issued a press release saying funding for college is "not enough." Moon called for progressive taxes including "a statewide tax on capital gains for households earning more than $250,000 [which would require state lawmakers' approval] and a tax on luxury real estate."
Moon said the city should "invest in education from cradle to college" by providing access to child care and education, but did not propose specific new programs or funding plans. The city should also "address inequity in Seattle education at its root causes" by addressing housing affordability and income inequality, Moon said.
In the same statement, Moon also announced an endorsement from SEIU 925, a union representing K-12 school workers, child care workers and employees of the University of Washington.