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Another Seattle property tax? This one's for preschool and college

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan has proposed a new, bigger education levy that would take city dollars from elementary schools. That money would instead go to adding preschool slots, two years of free community college and counseling for high school students.

This comes in the wake of new state funding for basic education.

Durkan’s proposed levy would raise $636 million over seven years, more than double the amounts raised by the expiring levies it replaces: the seven-year Families and Education Levy and the four-year Seattle Preschool Levy.

She billed it as a way to address the "opportunity gap" by helping all students get to preschool and college.

Said Dwayne Chappelle, director of Seattle’s Department of Education and Early Learning: “In the Seattle Preschool Program, we’ve seen our children of color make the greatest gains. We have to give more and more kids this opportunity to enter kindergarten prepared and ready.”

AsKUOW reported, student test results suggest low-income kids, bilingual children and children of color are making the most progress.

City Councilmember Rob Johnson supports it. But he said the levy’s shift away from funding elementary schools in favor of middle and high schools is already drawing scrutiny.

“I think the mayor’s hope is that those elementary school investments are going to be offset by state funding,” Johnson said. “I can tell you that some of the PTSA parents I talk to have a lot of concerns that that hope will not turn into reality.”

Dean Disharoon, a former preschool teacher who was watching his son on the playground outside the levy unveiling, said he would vote yes, with some reluctance.

“I myself would rather not pay property taxes for it, but I think it’s such an urgent need that I’m happy to do it,” he said. Ideally, he said, Seattle would have an income tax or some less regressive method of paying for these programs.

Speaking in a preschool classroom at the Miller Community Center, Durkan said, “This levy package is going to make critical investments in things we know work. The first is our preschools.”

The city’s current pilot program will serve up to 1,500 preschoolers, most of them for free. The new funding could serve 2,700 – about half the city’s pre-kindergarten population. 

But the evaluation also identified program weaknesses in the quality of instruction. City officials say they responded with more intensive support for teachers.

Durkan said her levy proposal would also fund something she campaigned on: two years of free community college for 875 students and support for college readiness in high school. She said the college funding is the smallest share of levy spending, just 7 percent. 

“We will make sure not just that every kid gets two years college, but when they’re in high school, we’re going to have counselors in the high school getting them ready and pointing them to college, so they know they can do it,” Durkan said.

Councilmember Johnson said the council will take up the levy proposal on Monday. They’ll be looking at whether families who are able to pay tuition could become another funding source for the preschool program.

“Right now basically anybody who comes into the pre-k program gets some kind of subsidy regardless of your income qualification,” he said. “Can we open up the program to larger diversity of kids by allowing some families who can afford to, to pay a little bit more, and will that result in some additional subsidies to bring more kids into the program?”

Under the McCleary decision, voters in King County are already coping with a court-mandated property tax increase of 17 percent this spring to increase public school funding in Washington. Durkan said she knows taxpayers are stretched thin. She said  low-income seniors, veterans and people with disabilities can get an exemption from the new levy if it passes. 

The levy would cost $80 more per year in property taxes on a median-value home than the two existing levies, or $250 total. 

The proposal is expected to go to voters in November.

Year started with KUOW: 2005