King County is about to get a windfall to spend on education. But where will it go?
It’s likely not many residents have heard about a last-minute amendment tucked into the state’s transportation budget back in 2015.
That measure tacked on a fee to Sound Transit construction contracts, with revenues creating a one-time opportunity for King County to spend about $318 million to improve academic outcomes in early learning, K-12 schools and higher education.
With 15 years to spend that money, the Metropolitan King County Council must soon decide how. The Pierce and Snohomish county councils will also have about $200 million to spend on education.
The financial boon arrives during an era of continuing mobility across the Puget Sound region, as families get priced out of increasingly expensive neighborhoods.
The timing offers each county a chance to fund programs and projects that support students and families moving across city and school district boundaries. But already, as the King County Council prepares to consider how to divvy the money, interest groups have knocked on council members’ doors to advocate for their own priorities.
“There’s strong competition for the money,” said King County Councilmember Joe McDermott.
King County will start receiving close to $800,000 through the fund, though grants won’t be awarded until mid- to late-2020, projections show.
In late 2017, the council voted unanimously to pass a motion that declared its intent to spend the money on initiatives that would improve academic outcomes for students of color and children who are low-income, homeless or in other vulnerable groups. On Monday, council members will meet to consider legislation that, for now, has blanks where the council would have to determine exactly what percentage of the $318 million should go to which part of the education system: early learning, K-12 or higher education.
As sponsor of the motion, McDermott said he wants to avoid taking a “peanut-butter approach” that would spread the money across too many programs and potentially risk having a real impact.
“My legislation only lays out a framework. It doesn’t make any decisions,” McDermott said of the motion on the June 17 agenda. The council will reconsider the motion at its July 1 meeting as well.
“We certainly will take public testimony and hear from stakeholders about their suggestions and desires for the fund,” he added. “My hope is that my colleagues will begin an honest conversation on the dais about what policy changes we want to make.”
McDermott hopes that by the July 1 meeting, the council will reach some consensus on which part of the education system gets how big a slice of the funding pie. Decisions about what each slice would be spent on will come later.
The council is already spending big on the youngest kids: Since voters approved the countywide Best Starts for Kids levy in 2015, the county has committed about half of that $392 million on children from birth to 5 years. But on top of that investment, a regional group that supports expanding early learning has proposed tapping 50% or 85% of the new $318 million fund to add nearly 4,000 new spaces by 2036.
“Many King County children who need and are eligible for subsidized high-quality early learning are not able to access it, largely because geographic pockets of King County lack early learning facilities,” the group said in its proposal. “Our analysis estimates that more than 4,500 eligible children in King County do not have access.”
Meanwhile, the Puget Sound Coalition for College and Career Readiness — a regional network of school districts, colleges and universities — has pitched spending $124 million on college access. The competing proposal — dubbed the King County Promise — calls for financial aid, more counselors on high school and college campuses, and stronger partnerships between school districts and institutions of higher education.
The King County Promise would address how many students move throughout the county, said Mercy Daramola, manager of the college and career network team at the Puget Sound Educational Service District, which supports the proposal.
“That’s a strength of the King County Promise because we’re looking at such a large net,” she said. “Because of that very high mobility of students, you want to be sure the system doesn’t drop them if they move from one school to another.”