Seattle’s Families and Education Levy is losing its way
Last month, parents at Sand Point Elementary School learned that the City of Seattle had decided to slash a $318,000 Families and Education Levy grant they had worked hard to earn. When parents and staff learned about the sudden cut, they rose to challenge that decision. The dramatic reduction to the grant puts at risk teachers' jobs, instructional supplies, a family support worker, and a school counselor.
What was the reason given by the City for taking away the grant funds? It's because the school's principal is leaving for another job. Since this news broke, we’ve learned that the City is also making a big cut to the Levy grant at Emerson Elementary School. For the City to require staffers to stay in place for a grant to be fulfilled is neither feasible nor fair, as no public entity can guarantee anyone stay in any job. What is even more strange is that one school, South Shore Pre-K-8, isn’t going to lose its Levy grant even though it is losing its principal.
This absurd tale is just the latest example of how the City is losing its way with the $235 million Families and Education Levy. The Levy was originally intended as a way for Seattle taxpayers to provide important services that the schools couldn't offer. Now, under the leadership of Council President Tim Burgess and Department of Education and Early Learning (DEEL) Director Holly Miller, the City has begun to use the Levy to impose education reforms that voters were never told about and to insert the City into school district operations in ways the voters never intended. These changes have jeopardized the very services that the Levy was created to support.
First approved in 1990, the Families and Education Levy has historically funded crucial support services for Seattle's children, including school-based health clinics, meal programs, tutoring services, and family support. Levy funding is focused on the Title I schools with high proportions of children on free and reduced lunch, a common indicator of poverty. In this way the Levy has served to provide social and economic justice as well as help improve our schools while offering services to every student in the district.
This was the model sold to voters in 2011 when they renewed the Families and Education Levy at almost double its previous size. City staff, led by what is now DEEL and the Levy Advisory Committee, have instead taken the Levy in very different directions.
Under the new Levy, funding is now conditional on test scores, even for programs that have nothing to do with standardized testing. The Levy requirements ratchet up the issue of the uses of standardized testing. As the Seattle Times' Danny Westneat recognized, this emphasis on testing has come at the expense of learning and a broader curriculum -- including the arts.
Arts organizations lost Levy funding thanks to the City's emphasis on test scores. Arts programs that had regularly received Levy funding were suddenly told in 2012 that they had to track their students' reading and math scores in order to be eligible for funding, and that if those scores went down, funding to arts programs could be cut off. Not a single arts organization was deemed eligible for Levy funding in 2012, and City bureaucrats stubbornly refused to reconsider despite public outcry over the unreasonable new rules. Arts Corps reported in 2014 that it had offered its lowest number of arts courses in schools in its history, thanks in part to the loss of Levy funds.
In 2012 City administrators refused to fund a grant request submitted by Rainier Beach High School, despite the school's clear need for additional funding and programs. Rainier Beach, whose turnaround was recently lauded in the Seattle Times, still struggles to provide enough textbooks to all of its students. The Families and Education Levy could have easily paid for the textbooks, but no effort was made to do so.
Starting in 2014, the City began to expand the scope of the Levy, under the direction of Burgess and Miller, to include education reforms opposed by Seattle voters as well as steps to insert the City into the governance of the school district. In October 2014 the Levy Oversight Committee, chaired by Burgess, suggested that charter schools become eligible for Levy dollars, even though 60% of Seattle voters rejected charter schools at the 2012 election.
In April 2015 the Department of Education and Early Learning announced it would be insinuating the City into more and more of the school district's own work in managing staff, including specifically collaborating with the district on school leadership changes. This appears to be the justification used to slash Sand Point's Levy grant. And the word “principal” isn’t even in the original partnership agreement the City and the District signed for the F&E levy grants.
What ties all this together is a March 23, 2015 report by DEEL to School Board directors about the F&E levy. DEEL staff brought up the issue of churn from leadership changes in relation to school grants and yet, they did not mention that if schools with F&E grants changed principals, those schools would have their grants pulled or reduced. This presentation even included a “course correction” on “clarifying expectations for school leaders.” DEEL’s staff had every opportunity to tell the Board members about this possibility and yet did not. This dramatic change to the role of the City and the Levy came without public consultation, and without a vote of the City Council.
These particular changes come on the heels of a recent effort by state legislators to allow Mayor Ed Murray to appoint members of the School Board. Seattleites were not receptive to that plan, so it appears that the City wants to instead use its Levy dollars as a way to gain more control over school district operations.
This isn’t what Seattle voted for. Voters supported the Families and Education Levy to fund services that help kids escape poverty, rather than serve as a slush fund for the City to impose unwanted tests or as leverage for a City takeover of the schools. We need City Council candidates to step up and take back the Levy for its original purpose: equity and justice, not testing and micromanagement