Supporters of the city education levy have raised nearly $300,000, have no organized opposition and have seen voters approve similar measures four times before. But they also have some cause to be wary.

Share story

Supporters of the $600 million-plus city education levy on Seattle’s Nov. 6 ballot have reason to be confident. For the most part.

They have raised nearly $300,000, have no organized opposition and have seen voters approve similar measures four times before. This Election Day’s edition includes programs for people all the way from preschool tots through K-12 students to adults in community college.

But the proponents of Seattle Proposition No. 1 also have some cause to be wary.

Trust in Mayor Jenny Durkan and the City Council, who drew up the measure, took a beating earlier this year when they passed and then abruptly killed a so-called head tax on businesses to address homelessness.

Some voters are still smarting from property-tax hikes by the state this past spring for education, and others are looking ahead to February, when Seattle Public Schools will put its own construction and operations levies on the ballot.

Finally, the possibility that charter schools could potentially receive some city money has undermined enthusiasm for the levy in certain circles.

To counter those concerns, supporters, among them heavy hitters from business and labor such as Amazon and the Martin Luther King County Labor Council, are selling the tax as a smart investment that will equip the city’s next generation – including children from low-income families and communities of color – to land the well-paying jobs being created here.

Fewer than 80 percent of Seattle public-school students graduate from high school, with lower rates for low-income students and students of color.

“I know that every dollar is a decision for people right now,” the mayor said recently. “But I truly believe … this will set the table for our kids.”

A bigger, broader levy

Named the Families, Education, Preschool and Promise Levy, the property-tax measure would raise about $620 million over seven years, replacing a K-12 and a preschool levy both set to expire.

It would fund the city’s subsidized preschool program, various K-12 programs that help Seattle Public Schools (SPS) students from disadvantaged backgrounds, health clinics inside SPS schools and community college scholarships for SPS graduates.

To foot the bill, the owner of a Seattle home of median assessed value would pay an average of $248 per year, up from $136 this year for the expiring levies.

The Families Yes campaign for the new levy had raised $299,275 as of Oct. 10, with the largest donation coming from Amazon.

The campaign has been mostly saving its money for crunch time, spending less than $35,000 in August, including $26,500 for a poll.

Former City Councilmember Tim Burgess, a volunteer co-chair of Families Yes, said the campaign plans to mail promotional materials to voters as they receive their ballots this week. Families Yes also plans to advertise on social media.

On the stump, supporters are making the case that the new levy would build on proven programs.

Students in the city’s preschool program, which the levy would grow to 2,500 seats, have made gains in literacy and language skills, according to a new evaluation.

Low-income students of color at three Seattle middle schools with levy programs made significant progress on math tests, according to SPS data, and high-school students who used the health clinics saw their attendance and grades improve, according to a 2010 study. 

Potential obstacles to approval

The greatest obstacles could be a hangover from the head-tax debacle and potential burnout among voters who agreed to double the city’s transportation and housing levies in 2015 and 2016.

Foes of the head tax spent months attacking City Hall as inept and wasteful. As a way to make the education levy more palatable, Burgess initially advised Durkan to shift money from K-12 to preschool, rather than merely asking for more money.

Saul Spady, a public-relations consultant who battled the head tax, sent an email to his network last month seeking money for digital outreach on Seattle politics, including to raise awareness about the education levy affecting rents, he said.

Spady plans to vote against the levy because, he said, “There are other things the city should be prioritizing.”

The grandson of Dick’s Drive-In founder Dick Spady said his plea went nowhere. “I haven’t raised any money,” Spady said.

Durkan said she once worried the head-tax acrimony would hurt the education levy. But business, labor, nonprofit and several Democratic Party organizations instead have joined to back it.

The wild card could be the charter-school question, cited by the League of Women Voters of Seattle-King County and by education activist and blogger Melissa Westbrook as a reason to vote no. Charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run, are relatively new to the state.

The Durkan administration would not rule out giving levy money to charters.

“There is nothing there in the levy language that protects the K-12 dollars for Seattle Public Schools,” Westbrook wrote last month.

Not all voters with reservations about charters oppose the levy, however.

The 36th District Democrats have endorsed the measure in tandem with a resolution urging the City Council to reserve the K-12 money for traditional public schools, said Summer Stinson, the group’s policy director.

School Board President Leslie Harris has taken a similar tack. She pressed the city on charters at a recent meeting but also said, “Would I suggest voting against such an extraordinary levy? I absolutely would not.”

Staff reporter Neal Morton contributed to this report.