by Sandra Vanderven
The Seattle Channel hosted a debate last Wednesday between the sponsors of dueling initiatives on Seattle’s ballot in support of access to and quality of pre-kindergarten education. Both plans start with the worthy goal of improving pre-k. The choice we face is how to achieve that goal. We shouldn’t be having to choose between them, because they each address different aspects of early childhood education, and taken together the plans would be complimentary. Unfortunately, the City opted to put them onto the ballot in competition with one another. The City Council’s (really, Tim Burgess’s) plan privileges educator attainment of official credentials and a mandated curriculum. The union backed plan seeks to leverage the wealth of experience among practicing professionals.
The situation right now is that the cost of preschool is so high that many families who need it can’t afford it. At the same time, there isn’t enough money to pay the teachers adequately, so every year, 38% of the workers leave the profession. Until the new minimum wage kicks in for smaller businesses, the turnover will be even greater, as people will leave to flip burgers instead when it becomes more lucrative.
Burgess’ plan seeks to raise money through a levy to pay for a new department of Early Childhood Education. This new department will mostly pull people from work they are already doing for the city in that field, causing work disruption and delay, and likely requiring a new layer of management (watch for that, because expenses will go way up). It will mandate methods used in the classroom for 3 and 4 year olds, and will serve about 200 kids in two years, and 2,000 in four years. This ballot measure requires preschool teachers to get college degrees.
The union-backed plan doesn’t directly add enrollment capacity. What it does do is provide access to preschool to more families by lowering tuition costs to no more than 10% of a given household’s income. The means of paying for this has not yet been determined. It will also create better conditions for the estimated 30,000 kids already being served from birth to age 5. One way to do this is to raise the minimum wage sooner for pre-k teachers, so they can afford to stay in the profession, providing a consistent presence for the kids. Another is by offering a variety of training opportunities accessible through an affordable training academy. In this way, the union backed plan honors the experience of the people who work with kids, and provides them with opportunities to grow professionally in a way that is tailored to meet each teacher’s needs and goals.
At last Wednesday’s early education smackdown, I sat next to former Seattle School Board member Michael DeBell. He supports Tim Burgess’s initiative, which on the ballot will be labeled 1B. From chatting with him, I got that he explains away the merits of the union backed initiative (1A) with an attitude that naysayers are gonna naysay. I didn’t talk to him long enough to get a sense of whether he’s always a democratic establishment guy, but he sure wears their perfume. The hallmark is a subscription to a smarty pants attitude, as evinced by his statement, “There’s always going to be some group or another ready to oppose a good plan.” Never mind what the supporters of 1A think, or why.
This debate boils down to people’s a priori beliefs. Some feel strongly that to support kids we need to support teachers and families. Others think the answers lie with testing. The catchword in education for at least the last decade or so has been “outcomes.” This is an important and productive development. But making all education conform to standard outcomes would be a mistake. Here’s why.
Since I am totally objective, you know it is true when I tell you that the best teacher to ever walk the planet happened to work at my high school. His name was Jerry Elarth. Elarth was a feral thinker. Because it was 1984 and no one had put a stop to it yet, he taught a class called Science Fiction and World Philosophy. I learned more in that class about what it means to be human, and how to continue learning beyond school, than in any other. What would have happened if that teacher had been hammered by our current obsession with outcomes? Who could write the test questions that might evaluate what I got out of that class? Even I couldn’t do that, and if I could, a different set of questions would have to be devised for every student he taught, because we all had a unique experience.
I love science, and I have a healthy regard for all things science-y. This is how I have come to know that the enemy of science is hubris. If you are convinced that we are always asking the right questions, then by all means, support Tim Burgess, who positions himself as having science on his side, like a member of a religious sect claiming that God is actually in his corner and no one else’s. Check this out—if a nurse visits the home of a new, at-risk mom once every two weeks from before birth to age two offering guidance in nurturing, the child’s prospects rocket in all regards. Significantly more of them graduate from high school, they go to jail in far fewer numbers, get in trouble at school way less, and have higher I.Q.s. That’s science too, bub!
This all boils down to beliefs. Do we Seattleites believe that there’s value in supporting teachers in their creative quests to guide students toward richer lives, or do we continue to find ways to standardize education? Let your beliefs guide you when choosing between the two early education plans.
Sandra Vanderven is a Community Organizer and Board President of the Backbone Campaign.