A year after Seattle voters approved the city’s largest-ever education tax, money has started flowing from the $600 million-plus levy to expand preschool classrooms and get more students into college.
The city’s education department also recently announced a $400,000 initiative with the YWCA Seattle-King-Snohomish to help youth experiencing homelessness. And for the first time, charter schools may soon compete with traditional K-12 schools in Seattle for annual awards of up to $560,000 to pay for tutoring, family engagement and other programs meant to support historically underserved students and communities.
“Our main goals are to make sure our kids are kindergarten ready, kids graduate from high school college and career ready and we want to make sure kids have opportunities for livable wage jobs,” said Dwane Chappelle, director of the city’s department of education and early learning.
Last year, more than two-thirds of voters approved the seven-year Families, Education, Preschool and Promise levy, which replaced and merged two expiring property taxes that funded a subsidized preschool pilot and school-based programs and health clinics.
The city pitched spending more than half of the money from the levy — about $341.8 million — on expanding preschool enrollment from 1,500 to 2,500 by 2026. And as of last week, Chappelle said, the program has added 14 new classrooms across Seattle with 263 new seats for students.
Still, finding space that meets licensing requirements to operate a preschool has come with challenges, and, in October, Chappelle’s department awarded more than $1.2 million to renovate or build new classrooms and improve safety at five preschools.
The new levy also includes money to finance a free community college program for all Seattle high school graduates, one of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s campaign pledges. The program now includes 175 new students from six high schools, and students who graduate from 17 high schools this academic year will be able to use the scholarships.
“This is the first year that all three of the Seattle college campuses have our 14th-year students,” Chappelle said.
As for K-12 schools, the city soon will open a bidding process to expand a mentoring program, known as Kingmakers, to two more campuses. (Currently Aki Kurose, Denny and Mercer middle schools and Interagency Academy run the program.) And so far, the levy has funded the expansion of school-based health centers from 25 campuses to 28 — one short of the promise made to voters last year.
Individual schools also have until Dec. 13 to apply for competitive awards ranging from $200,000 to $560,000, which can cover a variety of wraparound services and programs to boost the performance of students of color, refugees and immigrants, children experiencing homeless, English learners and LGBTQ+ youth. The city received formal notices from nearly five dozen schools intending to apply for the money, including four charter schools — one of which won’t open until next fall.
During the campaign for the levy, critics of the measure — most vocally, the League of Women Voters of Seattle-King County — questioned whether money for the K-12 programs could flow to charter schools, which are publicly funded by the state but managed by unelected boards. Durkan and city officials sidestepped those concerns, saying the city’s legal department hadn’t come to a conclusion about whether charter schools could benefit from the levy.
Now, it appears that they can.
“It’s about the kids,” Chappelle said. “If you’re a Seattle student, that’s ultimately what the levy dollars are for: Seattle kids.”
His department will review the applications over the next three months and make a decision about awards by early March. But in the meantime, it’s hammering out a separate, more than $400,000 contract with the YWCA for a new initiative to support students who are unstably housed.
Nearly 4,400 students experienced homelessness during the 2017-18 school year, with 60% spending their nights crashing with friends and relatives, also known as doubled-up or couch surfing. Under federal housing rules, schools can’t count those students as homeless, even though state data show they have similarly poor outcomes in school as their peers living in a shelter, at a hotel or outside.
Cristina Gaeta, with the city’s education department, said the YWCA will use the money to prevent families from becoming homeless, help them secure permanent housing, improve attendance for students and reduce the number of transfers between schools.
“It’s not just support to find housing and stabilize themselves,” Gaeta said, “but also those wraparound services to develop the skills so it doesn’t happen again.”
Correction: A previous version of this story included an inaccurate count of high schools with graduates using the Seattle Promise scholarships. It is currently six.