Seattle is Leading on Education Reform

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Seattle Public Schools logoThere has been lots of discussion lately about the best path forward on public school reform. There has even been a public airing of the frustration some Democrats feel over the slow pace of reform and their belief that teachers’ unions are dragging their feet and resisting substantive changes to the status quo.

While these debates continue, Seattle is purposefully moving forward with an initiative predicated on a fundamental tenet of education reform—that we measure student academic performance and adjust our strategies when performance lags.

This initiative, the Families and Education Levy, is backed by a broad coalition of teachers, parents, education leaders, community organizations, and by the local teachers union, the Seattle Education Association.

This afternoon, the City Council will vote on legislation establishing the implementation and evaluation plan for the Levy. Seattle voters approved this measure by a 64% margin last November, agreeing to tax themselves $232 million over the next seven years to fund special interventions to help the city’s most academically at risk students and schools.

Frankly, the Levy is a radical departure from the status quo in public education. While the argument about linking teacher evaluations to student performance continues, the Levy takes the step of linking funding of our partners (schools and nonprofit organizations) to student performance. The focus is on student academic achievement, not the good intentions of the adults or school administration. At the same time, it does honor the crucial importance of effective teachers, strong principals and family engagement.

The Levy is meticulously managed by the City’s Office for Education, not the School District. Levy funds are awarded on a competitive basis to community-based nonprofit organizations and schools that demonstrate an ability to achieve specific academic improvement targets. Twenty percent of contract dollars are tied directly to achieving outcomes, meaning these funds can be withheld if the desired outcomes are not met. Program interventions that don’t work are canceled.

Levy investment decisions are based on what works to improve student academic achievement. For example, the new Levy will invest much more heavily in pre-kindergarten education and elementary schools since research evidence strongly demonstrates that such early interventions pay huge dividends in student success.

The ultimate goal of the Levy, in partnership with the School District, is that all Seattle schoolchildren will graduate from high school prepared for college or some form of post-secondary career certification.

Some schools in Seattle have consistently failed to provide a quality education to their students. Many of these schools have high concentrations of students living in poverty and students of color. The City is particularly focused on improving these schools. But, the City will not invest in these schools if we have insufficient confidence that the principal and faculty will wisely and effectively use the Levy’s funds.

Recognizing that sometimes new thinking and strategies are needed to address persistent failure, state law allows for “innovation schools” to adopt different governing rules. They have greater flexibility in setting curriculum, extending class periods and school days, and in hiring teachers, as well as a host of other options for modifying standard operations. Over the past two years, as we developed plans for renewal of our city’s Levy, we had the “innovation school” option clearly in mind. The implementation and evaluation plan we will vote on later today is designed to provide significant funding to a few of our weakest schools.

However, on February 15, the School Board approved a memorandum of agreement with the teachers’ union that will govern how and when innovation schools can be utilized in Seattle. Besides changing the name to “creative approach” schools, the agreement requires 80% of a school’s faculty to approve switching to innovation school status. This unusually high threshold will likely be impossible to meet in the very schools our Levy is designed to help.

I fear that as a consequence, only schools already providing a quality education, with stable and unified faculties, will be able to take advantage of the latitude offered by the state’s innovation school provisions. And I fear that for our struggling schools, the 80% threshold will maintain the status quo, blocking them from unique opportunities to implement approaches that help their youngsters succeed. I hope I’m wrong and that our principals and teachers will continue to embrace innovation for the sake of our children.

The new Families and Education Levy is a strong, bold and very necessary tool designed to help those Seattle schoolchildren most in need. Let’s not put obstacles in the way of the Levy or of the schools and students it seeks to serve.

(This post was originally published earlier today at