With Initiative Push, Seattle Pre-K Teachers Jockey For Position and Pay

More than anything, it’s about having a “seat at the table.”

This, according to Heather Weiner, a spokesperson for Yes for Early Success, which launched an initiative drive last Saturday that seeks a $15 an hour minimum wage for Seattle-area pre-k and childcare workers. While it’s the money part that’s catching most people’s attention so far – given the citywide movement for the same thing that’s been percolating for over a year - Weiner says the effort, which has union backing from SEIU Local 925 and the American Federation of Teachers-Washington, is about more.

Sure, the minimum wage hike is important, make no mistake. But to hear Weiner tell it, the newly launched initiative push – which, she says, will only be necessary if the City Council fails to develop a universal pre-k plan that teachers find adequate - is about the future of early childcare in Seattle and who decides how it will work. She says a total of “nine or 10” different versions of the initiative were filed with the City Clerk, though two are already “off the table.” Varying only in terms of who the $15 an hour minimum wage applies to and how it’s implemented, Weiner says exactly which version of the initiative is pursued will be chosen within the coming days. All of them include the creation of a “Professional Development Institute,” which would be run by the city and a hired provider, and governed by an appointed board of directors. The institute would be tasked with overseeing teacher training and certification.

In some ways, much like the larger Seattle’s minimum wage debate, what we’re seeing is another example of using the threat of initiative as a bargaining tool. Championed by City Council President Tim Burgess, the city is currently crafting a universal pre-k plan with the goal of placing an initiative on the November ballot that would provide high-quality universal pre-k in Seattle for 3- and 4-year-olds. Aiming to make the schooling free to families earning less than twice the federal poverty rate, and available on a sliding scale for those who earn more, the proposition won’t be cheap – which is why, as the Seattle Times has reported, voters “probably will be asked to pay for it with a property-tax levy.” Burgess told the Seattle Times that having what the paper calls a “competing measure” on the ballot could be “very destructive.”

“There has to be very strong clarity or else voters get confused, or they perceive conflict, and it makes it very difficult to win passage,” Burgess continued in the Times.

That may be a fight for another day. What’s important now, according to Weiner, is how will the city’s proposal will look, and what training and regulator guidelines will be established to guarantee the schooling meets high-quality standards? That’s the discussion Weiner says existing teachers, backed by the unions, want to make sure they’re a part of. And it’s the impetus for the initiative signature gathering effort they launched over the weekend. Basically, it’s a statement, saying: Include existing teachers and childcare employees in the discussion, or we’ll make sure you do.

“We want to make sure [universal pre-k] is set up for success, and the way to do that is to make sure teachers are being held to high standards, and we’re able to attract and retain them,” explains Weiner, arguing that higher pay will help make that possible. Currently, she says child care and pre-k teachers in King County average $13.93 and hour, while assistant teachers make $11.35. Kindergarten teachers, meanwhile, average $26.11 an hour in the county. Weiner partially credits the wage discrepancy for a high turnover rate for childcare professionals. To improve the quality of childcare in Seattle, she says teachers need to be paid more – at least in part to be able to pay for increased training requirements that will surely be a part of the city’s universal pre-k plan. (Currently, she says 40 hours of training is required for certification, plus an additional 10 hours per year to maintain it.)

Weiner says Saturday’s kickoff event drew over 200 pre-k and childcare workers who support bringing universal pre-k to Seattle and want to make sure they have a voice in how its implemented. She says the unions represent the wishes of roughly 1500 area childcare workers, and that their years of experience should not be ignored in establishing universal pre-k guidelines for the city.

“In the discussions [surrounding universal pre-k], it’s been so focused one where the money’s going to come from, and what kind of centers are going to get this money,” says Weiner. “What’s been overlooked is how do we make sure we have the best possible workforce.”

Among those in attendance Saturday was City Council member Mike O’Brien, who tells Seattle Weekly he was there “more on a values level” than to support any specific initiative. He says he supports the concept of raising the minimum wage – for childcare workers and others - and supports the teachers’ right to pursue the initiative process to make sure they’re voices are heard as the city’s universal pre-k plan is developed. He says ignoring teachers’ expertise during the process would “be negligent on our part.”

That said, O’Brien also remains hopeful that no initiative will be necessary.

“My hope is that we can run a legislative process... and come up with something that feels right,” says O’Brien. “So we don’t need to go to the ballot.”

For her part, Weiner says the city has seemed very open so far to listening to the concerns of teachers and that already “many, many conversations” have been had. She says the initiative push is being launched “just in case” something changes.

“I guess my question to the city is what’s wrong with having teachers and staff at the table,” she says. “I don’t understand what the problem is with that.”

Maybe it’s no problem at all. The initiative’s main goal seems to be keeping it that way.

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