For generations, Seattle’s worst schools have clustered in its poorest areas. Councilmember Tim Burgess says help from the city could go a long way toward reversing that pattern.

Share story

Whether the mayor wants more control over Seattle’s public education system has been a topic of speculation since the city pushed its plan to pay for preschool, with many classrooms in school district buildings.

Was Mayor Ed Murray encroaching? Inching toward a takeover? At a summit he convened last month, Murray laid out dismal school outcomes for children of color, but took pains to say he was not “pointing fingers” at school Superintendent Larry Nyland, who sat in the audience.

City Councilman Tim Burgess, however, is more direct in his criticism, and proposed solutions.

“You’d think the district would be horrified,” he said in an interview, noting that Seattle’s worst-rated elementary schools have clustered in the south end of the city for years and all of its best are located up north. Overall, the city’s white students outperform the state on math and language tests, while black children here do worse than those in other districts.

Most Read Stories

3-course dinners for $32 starting April 2.

“It’s a systemic evil,” Burgess said. “We think of education as our springboard to getting out of poverty, but when the system isn’t adequately serving students, we’ve just built another barrier.”

The councilman, an architect of Seattle’s program to provide free preschool to low-income kids, is focused on Seattle’s youngest citizens because research suggests that any effort to improve public education without addressing early childhood is as productive as trying to fill a bathtub with an open drain.

Academics agree. Jane Waldfogel, co-author of “Too Many Children Left Behind: the U.S. Achievement Gap in Comparative Perspective,” compared the performance of American low-income students to those in Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom, three “peer countries” with cultures, economic systems and class differences similar to ours.

Cognitive deficits for poor kids exist in each, she found, but they are much larger in the U.S., and public education here does little to shrink them.

“The United States gaps are high — and do not narrow — during the school years,” Waldfogel wrote. “Elsewhere the situation is different.”

Her findings so electrified Burgess that he gave a copy of Waldfogel’s 2015 book to every member of the City Council and school board, and says he will push for more city investment in programs that boost school-readiness.

Already, Seattle is spending $2.3 million on the Nurse-Family Partnership, a widely-studied national program in which trained nurses visit first-time, low-income mothers to ensure proper nutrition and health care. The effort, which began in Elmira, N.Y., in the 1970s, has dramatically reduced child abuse and neglect, as well as the use of welfare and food stamps.

Currently, 300 Seattle mothers receive these in-home visits, Burgess’ staff said, and he would like to expand that number.

He also proposes a $3 million increase to the Parent-Child Home Program, in which low-income toddlers get books, games and other educational materials from staff who model for parents the best ways to read, play and encourage conversation with their 2- and 3-year-olds.

The aim is building language skills, and results have been “amazingly strong,” Burgess said. By third grade, children whose parents were enrolled showed better math and reading ability than kids whose families were not. Currently, 510 children are getting these services through the United Way. Burgess wants to double that figure.

Seattle Preschool already receives $14.5 million annually from the city to work with 15 classrooms of children — in both public schools and private centers. Over each of the next three years, that number is scheduled to double, for a total of 2,000 kids enrolled by 2019.

But as the city’s preschool program expands, it will need more space. And if a majority of Seattle’s 9,000 3- and 4-year-olds enroll, costs could reach $100 million, according to Burgess’ staff.

“If we do this right, we can achieve life-changing results,” the councilman said. “City government can do a lot, and it would be great if the school district would come along with us.”