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- This is what it should be about: kids.
No, I’m not back on staff at The Stranger, and they couldn’t possibly pay me enough to freelance. (I've got a new price; they can’t afford me now.) But I’ve been championing universal preschool for years, so when the Yes on Prop 1B campaign offered to pay me absolutely nothing to write their official rebuttal to Sally Soriano’s ridiculous October 28 Guest Editorial ("Send Prop 1B, and Its Conservative Funders, Back to the Drawing Board"), I said, “Hell yes!”
You know, for the kids.
And what better way to make my triumphant return to Slog than with a good old-fashioned fisking? It’ll be long and loud—as is my wont—but it'll be well worth the read because it ends with me being totally right, and you the wiser for it. You’re welcome!
Here we go:
The Seattle League of Women Voters, the NAACP of Seattle/King County, Working Washington, and the Economic Opportunity Institute say we should vote for Prop 1A and send Prop 1B's plan for universal preschool back to the drawing board.
Yawn. And you know who endorses Prop 1B? Just about everybody else, including the Washington State Association of Head Start & ECEAP, the Childcare Directors Association of Greater Seattle, the Community Day School Association, the Seattle Human Services Coalition, El Centro De La Raza, the Boys and Girls Clubs of King County, Solid Ground, the Martin Luther King County Labor Council, and a who's who of educational, labor, community, civic, and political organizations. Not to mention the four most influential editorial boards in Seattle: the SECB, the Seattle Times, PubliCola, and me (not necessarily ranked in order of influence).
Only a conspiracy theorist could see something nefarious in that kind of broad bipartisan support.
The Prop 1B campaign is paid for by wealthy conservative donors who have funded efforts to bring publicly funded, for-profit charter schools to our community.
More than 70 percent of Prop 1B’s campaign coffers are from ultra-rich backers who also fund Republicans and conservative initiatives. Prop 1B’s funder list include names like Bezos, Nordstrom, Ballmer, Griffin, Larson, Gates—the same folks who paid for I-1240, the state’s charter school initiative, and helped defeat I-1098, the high earner income tax.
Yeah. Sure. Some of Prop 1B's funders also backed charter schools. But Ballmer, Griffin, Larson, and Gates were also big contributors to the campaign for Seattle's 2011 Families and Education Levy, and I didn't see Soriano getting all batshit crazy over that. Also, the specifics of this accusation are intentionally misleading. For example, Bill Gates Jr. hasn't given a dime to Prop 1B, and he certainly didn't oppose I-1098. His father, Bill Gates Sr., has given $5,000 to 1B. But at $600,000, Gates Sr. was also I-1098's most generous backer!
But let's take this "follow the money" attack to its logical conclusion. The Gates Foundation has spent more than a billion dollars fighting AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis—is that a pro-charter-schools plot too? And Ballmer, Larson, and Gates' Prop 1B contributions are absolutely dwarfed by the two-plus million dollars combined they've donated to the pro-background-checks Initiative 594. Which way are you voting on that, Sally?
With a funder list like this, it should be no surprise that the Prop 1B campaign is using scare tactics to pull voters from Prop 1A. Prop 1B’s attack ads use claims that reporters have called everything from speculation to obfuscation, threatening voters with cuts in police, fire, and transportation if the preschool-teacher-backed Prop 1A is approved.
Scare tactics? Really? Pot, meet kettle. Soriano's central thesis—that Prop 1B is a secret plot by wealthy conservatives to impose for-profit charter schools on Seattle—is nothing but a scare tactic. But the vilification doesn't end there.
The endorser list for Prop 1B is also worrisome, including corporations and businesses that oppose minimum wage hikes, like the Chamber of Commerce and Alaska Airlines.
But the endorser list is also made up almost entirely of organizations, companies, and individuals that supported the $15 minimum wage hike. So what's your point?
Sure, the YMCA and other nonprofits have endorsed 1B, but for many it’s a self-preservation strategy because they apply for existing and new levy funds. And yes, The Stranger endorsed Prop 1B on the premise that we should do something, anything, to help poor kids. But is that really what 1B does?
The YMCA? Sigh. I hate to damage my well-earned reputation as a labor shill, but the truth is, Prop 1A was entirely conceived as a self-presevation strategy by the labor unions funding it. It would give an immediate raise to child-care workers—which I support. And it would give these unions a virtual monopoly on revenue-generating teacher training and certification programs—for which there is actually a not-totally-crazy argument. Unions are in the business of protecting the interests of their members—as they should be—and that is primarily what 1A is all about. It may be smart politics, but it has nothing to do with preschool.
Prop 1B would cost Seattle taxpayers 58 million dollars over the next four years for an experimental pilot program that covers only 6.7 percent of Seattle's kids under 5.
As opposed to Prop 1A, which won't create a single preschool classroom at a cost of God knows what, because it is entirely unfunded.
Yes, Prop 1B's implementation is slower than a lot of people would like—the plan is to serve 2,000 3- and 4-year-old children by 2018 (a fully implemented universal program would serve about 9,000 kids)—but we have no choice but to implement slowly. We simply lack both the physical infrastructure and the number of trained and certified teachers sufficient to implement a high-quality program overnight.
And experiences in Boston and elsewhere teach us that implementing preschool right is more important than implementing it fast.
Rather than improve the existing system of 750 child-care centers and preschools already serving 20,000 of Seattle’s youngest kids, Prop 1B sets up a new top-down scheme for a limited number of children. Prop 1B doesn’t create new preschool seats, and may just move them around.
That's simply not true. Prop 1B's funding is additive to existing federal Head Start and state ECEAP funding, programs that are designed to serve our neediest children but which lack the money to serve all who qualify. Indeed, many of the first Prop 1B seats will almost certainly come within existing preschools that already serve Head Start and ECEAP students, because these high-quality programs adhere to the same rigid standards Seattle is adopting. Prop 1B implements a pilot program, sure. But there's nothing "experimental" about it. It is based on established high-quality early-earning programs that already deliver proven results.
(Also, there is no "system" of child-care centers and preschools. There are a lot of them, but there's no system.)
Under Prop 1B’s proposal, only some of the slots will be for poor or very-low-income families. For the lucky few low-income children who make it into the 1B program, there may not be as many benefits as advertised.
Prop 1B's pilot program will initially serve children from families earning under 300 percent of the poverty line who are not already being served by programs like Head Start and ECEAP. And yes, I suppose there "may not" be as many benefits as advertised. Or there may be more. The repeated use of the words "may" and "could" are often lazy proxies for pure speculation.
Because the first two years of a child's life are critical to development, plopping a handful of vulnerable 4-year-olds into a nine-month academic program may not overcome the serious impacts on the brain of a childhood of poverty and instability. A 4-year-old’s brain is 85 percent developed by the time she gets into a 1B preschool, and the benefits of a short-term curriculum set by city hall could be temporary at best.
Prop 1B could make matters worse by giving Seattle’s well-meaning voters, and legislators in OIympia, the feeling that we’ve done something good for poor kids and can move on to other matters.
Yes, the first few years of a child's life are absolutely critical to brain development, which is why I applaud King County Executive Dow Constantine's proposed "Best Starts for Kids Levy," which is aimed directly at that gap. Prop 1B is focused on providing high-quality early learning to both 3- and 4-year-olds (not just 4-year-olds, as the excerpt above implies). Prop 1A doesn't explicitly create high-quality anything.
As for "making matters worse" by giving legislators in Olympia a license to move on to other matters, Soriano has it exactly backwards: Implementing a successful preschool program here in Seattle is the first step toward implementing high-quality early learning statewide. If we do it right here, we’ll soon see similar programs in cities like Bellevue, Mercer Island, Shoreline, Renton, and Tacoma. Pretty soon voters throughout the state will demand the same opportunities for their children. Reject Prop 1B and you could set back Washington’s early-learning agenda by a decade or more.
Prop 1A takes a smarter, more efficient approach by setting up a framework to improve the quality and affordability of existing child-care centers and preschools in Seattle. Seattle’s 750 licensed centers already take care of our kids from the time they are infants until they are ready to board a school bus. Prop 1A helps set standards and quality improvements to the existing centers, instead of inventing an entirely new, expensive system for a limited number of children.
For all their cries about how Prop 1B is equivalent to charter schools, Prop 1A ultimately seeks (but doesn't fund) a public subsidy to the hundreds of private child-care centers that are already operating. Huh. That sounds suspiciously like vouchers to me.
Seattle's kids are already hurt by a high turnover rate among child-care teachers (18 percent) and assistant teachers (38 percent), but Prop 1B would drive out experienced teachers by requiring specialized bachelors’ degrees, causing even more kids to lose their teachers.
Prop 1B requires that the lead teacher in each classroom have a bachelor's in early education or the equivalent, or at the very least is on a path toward obtaining this degree. The lack of qualified teachers is one of the reasons why the program is implemented so slowly; the alternative would be to settle for less qualified teachers.
Regardless, Prop 1B doesn't drive out anybody. The program is voluntary. Most of the existing licensed centers will continue to operate as-is.
One of the biggest problems is not the lack of teachers with specialized academic degrees; it’s that too many teachers leave for higher-paying jobs. High turnover is directly linked to lower-quality care, with researchers reporting decreased emotional and language development in children.
Almost 20 percent of teachers, and another 40 percent of assistant teachers, leave their jobs each year because the pay is awful. Early educators in Seattle make between $11 and $14 an hour, even with decades of experience. When the new minimum wage law goes into effect, many early educators will be able to make more at McDonald's and Target. Prop 1A helps retain high-quality care for kids by raising the minimum wage for all of Seattle’s early educators to $15 an hour, one year faster than the city’s plan.
Can't argue with the link between low pay and low quality. But Prop 1B will pay qualified teachers like qualified teachers, whereas Prop 1A would merely set the floor at a $15 minimum wage—exactly what workers at McDonald's and Target will soon be earning.
Although Prop 1B advocates say its 100 teachers will make the same as public kindergarten teachers, it won’t help the other 4,400 early educators here. Few existing centers, and none of the in-home family centers, will be able to meet Prop 1B’s requirements, such as hiring only teachers with hard-to-find bachelors’ degrees in Early Childhood Education.
This is perhaps the most honest paragraph in Soriano's entire op-ed, as it illustrates exactly what Prop 1A is really about: protecting the interests of child-care workers. And that in itself is a worthy cause. But it has nothing to do with implementing high-quality preschool.
But even these concerns are overblown. Prop 1B only serves 3- and 4-year-olds, and only an additional 2,000 a year by the end of the four-year pilot program. There will still be plenty of child-care demand outside the city-run program. In fact, experience in Tulsa and Boston suggests that programs like the one Prop 1B creates actually increase overall demand for child care and preschool by normalizing the experience.
Besides, where are those 2,000 kids going to go? Seattle’s public schools are already overcrowded, and preschoolers need special facilities, like bathrooms away from the big kids.
Yes they are. Which is why, contrary to the paranoid claims of other 1B-haters, the program is entirely voluntary. Seattle Public Schools will not be forced to provide a single classroom. Rather, the initial slots will predominantly go into existing preschool programs that are willing to provide the classroom space and meet 1B’s high quality standards in order to qualify for the generous subsidies, and teacher training, and skills development funding that 1B provides.
The Prop 1B solution may be to give public funds to big and for-profit entities like YMCA and Bright Horizons, who can easily convert existing private preschool classrooms into publicly funded private preschool classrooms and replace their experienced teachers with new graduates with specialized degrees. If 1B just converts existing centers into 1B preschools, then it's not creating new seats, just moving the chairs around.
Again with the YMCA thing? Is the YMCA really the biggest bogeyman Soriano can come up with? Scary!
First of all, if existing centers that don't already meet Head Start and ECEAP standards are converted into 1B preschools, then we won't just be moving chairs around—we'll be creating new high-quality seats! And all the research shows that only high-quality programs produce lifelong results. Second, there are plenty of Head Start and ECEAP qualifying programs that would serve more very low-income students if only there was more Head Start and ECEAP funding available. Prop 1B helps fill that gap.
Finally, Prop 1B does nothing to address the skyrocketing cost of child care that burdens so many Seattle families, especially single moms.
Except for the families of the 2,000 3- and 4-year-olds who will soon get $10,000 a year worth of free high-quality preschool.
Seattle parents face two challenges: finding affordable housing and finding affordable child care. In fact, licensed child care is often more expensive than rent, costing $1,500 a month for a child in diapers. For the average single mother here, that’s more than half of her monthly paycheck, leaving little for food and other essentials.
The high cost of child care exacerbates wage inequality by forcing working women to take fewer hours and less responsibility or leave their kids in the care of neighbors or relatives.
Prop 1A gets the ball rolling on finding a solution to this affordability crisis by directing city hall to convene a task force of experts to look at what other cities, like Denver, San Francisco, and Chicago, have done and then make recommendations to the city council. Prop 1B does nothing to address this problem, and by offering only six hours per day of care, it puts more pressure on working parents to scramble to find before-and-after-preschool child care.
Omigod! Prop 1A solves the affordable-child-care crisis by convening a task force! Problem solved, Seattle style.
Prop 1B, on the other hand, raises $58 million over four years, about $3.50 a month for the average homeowner, to phase in 2,000 fully subsidized high-quality preschool slots serving families earning less than 300 percent of the federal poverty line—currently $71,550 for a family of four. No, that doesn't entirely solve the problem. But it's not nothing! And if the pilot program goes well, the council will come back to voters with a funding measure to expand the program to all Seattle preschoolers, with a generous sliding scale tuition subsidy for families earning more.
During my years at The Stranger, I wrote relentlessly about how high-quality preschool is the only education reform absolutely proven to work. Seriously. Read it. Then read it again. When it comes to early childhood education, the research is crystal clear. We know what works and what doesn’t in delivering results for kids at risk. Quality matters. Diverse, mixed-income classrooms matter. Age-appropriate, play-based curricula that prepares kids to enter kindergarten ready to learn matters. Extensive investment in teacher training, mentoring, and skills development matters. Providing significant subsidies to help struggling families to afford quality preschool matters. Indeed, the research is so compelling that even Republicans overwhelmingly support high-quality preschool. They just don't want to pay for it.
Now Seattle voters have an opportunity to do just that, with a thoughtful plan designed to deliver real results for the kids that need it most.
Look, I’m not totally unsympathetic to the stated goals of the labor-backed Prop 1A, but to be clear, it does not implement preschool. It’s about raising the pay, training, and certification of child-care workers, and it sets a goal of reducing child-care costs to 10 percent of a family’s income. Which are good things. But it’s totally unfunded. And it does not create a single preschool classroom, let alone a high-quality one.
Child care and preschool are not the same thing.
So yes, I am enthusiastically voting for Prop 1B, without reservations. Whatever the disappointing political machinations that led to this showdown, the clear choice on the ballot is between a measure that actually implements universal preschool, and a measure that doesn’t. I’m voting for the one that does. And so should you.
And remember, your ballot poses a two-part question—vote Yes on Prop 1, and then vote for 1B on question two.
Goldy is a former Stranger staff writer. He blogs at HorsesAss.org.