How to Make Sense of Seattle’s Child-Care Mess

Last week, Seattle City Council members voted to put two preschool and child-care proposals on the November ballot. They also decided to pit the measures—one drawn up by the city, one by a partnership of two unions—against one another. It is, in short, a confusing mess, one that city officials are still trying to sort out, never mind voters. To help, SW spent some time talking to the players involved.

How did we get here? A couple of years ago, City Council started working on a plan for universal pre-K, a concept that has been catching on around the country as a way to close the achievement gap and make sure all students are ready for school. Spearheaded by Councilmember Tim Burgess, the idea focused on quality. Among other stipulations, teachers would be required to get college degrees in early-childhood education, and would be compensated with salaries matching those of K-12 teachers.

That raised concerns among two unions, SEIU 925 and the American Federation of Teachers of Washington, who had formed a partnership aimed at organizing preschool and child-care workers. The unions worried that existing workers would be “thrown under the bus” by the new plan, as Karen Strickland, president of AFT Washington, puts it. Many such workers wouldn’t be able to meet the higher expectations in the four-year time frame laid out by the city proposal, the unions reckoned. They also wanted a broader plan that tackled pay and professional development for all child care, not just the narrow segment of “preschool” that caters to 3- and 4-year-olds, which is all the city wanted to take on.

So the unions and the city met a number of times over the past year to try to come up with a plan both could support. They couldn’t. The unions insisted that they (or a group like them representing workers) participate equally with the city in a new professional development institute that would set staff requirements, among other functions, seeing this as giving workers a voice. The city, according to Burgess, saw this as giving the unions a no-bid contract and “veto power” over essential standards.

What is the difference between the two measures? In the end, the unions drew up their own sweeping plan, now known as Initiative 107. It would, of course, create the professional development institute they were pushing. And it would affect absolutely all child-care facilities, including centers, home-based businesses, preschools, and before- and after-school programs for older kids.
The city’s plan, in contrast, applies only to 3- and 4-year-olds in bona fide “classrooms,” not covering home-based facilities. It’s also essentially a pilot program that starts small and ramps up, to 2,000 children in four years.

Both plans aim to keep costs for parents affordable. The city plan would be free to families earning less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level (roughly $72,000 for a family of four), and would charge those earning more according to a sliding scale. I-107 states that “No family should pay more than 10 percent of income on child care.”

Where will the money come from? Good question! In the city plan, the source of funding is made clear: a property-tax levy that would cost owners of a $400,000 house $43 a year. I-107, though, contains no funding mechanism.

That leaves open the question of whether the initiative really will keep costs down. The city claims that the 10-percent provision amounts to an unfunded mandate that could give rise to lawsuits from families having to pay more. Not at all, says Strickland, who adds that the provision is not an enforceable mandate but an “aspirational” goal. The city would be left to figure out how to achieve it, with no particular timetable specified.

In this way the city’s plan is far more concrete, though it fails to address astronomical child-care costs outside the narrow slice of the market that overlaps with preschool.

What’s this I hear about a minimum-wage clause in I-107? Didn’t we resolve that issue already? Indeed, we did—at least if the City Council’s $15-wage plan, passed last month, survives a variety of attacks underway, including a competing initiative and a lawsuit. But the unions filed their initiative before the city’s wage plan was hammered out, and then got locked into its language. Now they’re in the tricky position of defending a separate, faster track of wage hikes for child-care workers.

How will the measures be presented to voters? That’s still up in the air. Word around the Council is that the ballot will first ask voters if they approve of either measure, and then, in a separate item, instruct approving voters to pick one of the two. Got that? The unions are saying that they are still exploring whether voters could choose both, despite a Council vote that seeks to rule that out. City Attorney Pete Holmes’ office, which makes the final call, is not commenting at this point.

Can this get any more confusing? Probably. As election season gets underway, the city and unions will likely campaign not only for their measure, but against the competing measure. For two plans with similar goals, this is a train wreck.

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