If you love cities you’ll vote for the Families and Education Levy

At Franklin High School

It seems like common knowledge that a big part of what motivates where people live is the quality of schools. That’s why voting for the upcoming Families and Education Levy is just as important as other things urbanists support that more directly affect transportation, open space, or land use. If we have better schools in our city, Seattle will attract more people, creating the density we need for a vibrant sustainable city.

A recent study looking at residential choice found that

School quality has a significant impact on households’ residential location choice. In particular, households whose heads have college education are likely to locate close to school districts with exemplary ratings.

Not exactly shocking information. But most of us who groove on the density thing or who are opposing the tunnel or supporting transit don’t get all that involved in making our schools better. Many of us get more active when we have kids in Seattle schools, but many of us who don’t have children don’t even do that.

I used to work for the Washington State School Directors’ Association as a lobbyist years ago, and I did that long enough to learn that the way we pay for schools is seriously flawed. We need to take apart the whole school financing system and put it back together again. Teachers aren’t paid enough, there’s too much bureaucracy, and even though we’re constitutionally obligated to prioritize it, we’re not fully funding eduction.

So when our urban schools don’t work, or even if the perception is that they don’t work people will pay more for housing in places that have better schools. Here’s a bit from another study on how people make trade offs on schools:

Households with school-aged children are attracted to locations with high school quality and high-income neighbors, while choosing older houses (with more bedrooms). In other words, they make a trade-off by choosing older houses—less expensive homes in the housing market—in order to live in these preferred locations. Second, middle-income households with school-aged children are more likely to choose these same preferred locations, but they tend to choose older and smaller houses with more rooms. As expected, their relatively limited incomes seem to stimulate the trade-off between locationand housing quality.

This study was looking at housing quality, finding that people will sacrifice quality to get close to good schools and other things that improve social status. I’d argue that if we looked at issues of quality beyond number of rooms we’d find that location would be a significant sacrifice. In other words, quality includes the distance a family has to drive to work and family and other things in order to live close to good schools.

The idea that people move to sprawling exurbs for the schools is not new, but the idea that sprawl prevention includes investing more money in educational infrastructure isn’t often made. I’d go a step further, bad schools in dense urban areas can help contribute significantly to sprawl by inducing households to move to locations that induce more driving and therefore push demands for more highways. That’s why a vote FOR the levy is a vote AGAINST sprawl.

The current Families & Education Levy has already helped thousands of Seattle’s kids. Since 2005:

  • Levy-funded middle school students show a 21% increase in meeting math standards, and a 13%increase in meeting reading standards;
  • The 17,410 students who used school-based health clinics funded by the Levy have fewer absences, higher GPAs, and are less likely to drop out of school;
  • Over 40,000 kids received a range of physical & mental health services critical to success in school and life.
The Mayor and Council combined forces and political will to increase the levy, a big ask in tough times. The $231 million that will be raised can and should go to help make Seattle schools the best in the region. If we succeed in doing that, then we can get to the place I suggested we need to be, where young families choose Seattle over sprawl.
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14 Responses to If you love cities you’ll vote for the Families and Education Levy

  1. Matthew 'Anc' Johnson says:

    While I agree with all that you say I do have a question…. where does ‘Levy Equalization’ come into play in reference to these education levies?

  2. Sotosoroto says:

    You say you know the way we pay for schools is seriously flawed, but then you exhort us to pour more money into that broken financing system. Why the disconnect?

    We should be focusing more on streamlining the bloated school bureaucracy. *That* would provide much more funding for actual teaching than increasing the taxes.

  3. . says:


    School levy equalization doesn’t come into play here since this is a city levy. The funds raised will support programs in the schools but the funds are city tax revenue. School equalization is a tough issue because it is a budget outlay, requiring the state to contribute to a fund to help school districts with a smaller tax base.


    I don’t necessarily disagree with you. But remember this money, as I said above, is City money and does not go to the schools directly. The contracts are managed by the City.

    Second, reforming the system of financing does not necessarily mean it will cost less. Pumping more money into a broken system is not a good idea. But even a critic of schools can vote for this levy knowing that it has a proven track record and that it is not a general operations levy. They money doesn’t just go into a pond of money that the school district gets to spend.

    Finally, school reform is a messy business. As I have suggested before we need both more standardization (I agree with Governor Gregoire here) and more flexibility. Right now we’ve got the worst of state rules and regulation and local control where we need it least.

    You can vote for this levy and still be a skeptic of Seattle Public Schools and school funding in general.

  4. Matt the Engineer says:

    Vote for the education levy? Shoot, I’d vote for four of them if I could. I was strongly supportive of good education before I considered having kids. Now that I have one I find the issue very frustrating – WA has terrible schools* despite our average test scores**, and it’s really hard to find a home with good walkability, good transit, beautiful homes, and good schools (trust me – I’m looking).

    * In 2008 we ranked 9 out of the 50 states in spending on education. Only 3 other states had more students per teacher. Seattle schools at least have 18.1 students/teacher, compared to the statewide 19.1. The US average is 15.3. We’re also one of two states in the union that waits until children are 8 years old before we make them go to school. All data from this massive document.

    ** My guess is that our parents have more education than the average American parent. Imagine what our kids could be doing if we spent the average amount on them.

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  6. “bad schools in dense urban areas can help contribute significantly to sprawl by inducing households to move to locations that induce more driving and therefore push demands for more highways. That’s why a vote FOR the levy is a vote AGAINST sprawl.”
    You can say that again. So families are going to flock to dense urban areas and hope to rent 2 or 3 adjoining apartments for house their kids, just because there are good schools? Let me know when 3 bedrooms apartments become the norm. Old houses in Seattle are what the housing stock is all about…except for cramped 3 bdr/2bth townhouse which are really built for couples. And the folks that can afford them most likely buy them to be near good private schools. I’d love to see schools funded differently and teacher paid more. But we need reorganization from the top down. Does the MLK elementary sale speak to that?

  7. Steve says:

    Glenn Roberts: Plenty of families move to townhouses in Palo Alto for the schools. Seattle’s schools aren’t going to become Palo Alto’s overnight, but it’s not wrong to think people will choose high density to be in a good school district.

  8. Sotosoroto says:

    Glenn: Actually, this year when Seattle Schools reorganized how kids go to schools (so that you go to the school in your neighborhood instead of choosing all across the city), there was a sudden influx of 9th graders living in the Central District so they could go to Garfield HS. There were, in fact, twice as many freshman at Garfield this year than the administrators expected. So yeah, families are gonna stuff their kids into small apartments or with cousins or whatever — in a “bad” neighborhood, just so their kids can go to a good school.

  9. Mark S Johnson says:

    Watch your language about the Central District there. It’s a great neighborhood that provides housing for people of all incomes and therefore has more people that suffer when social support programs get cut. Thankfully the school district has not gutted the programs at Garfield.

  10. Sotosoroto says:

    I put quotes around “bad” for precisely that reason. The CD has a reputation, but from the police statistics, it’s safer than Capitol Hill or the U District.

  11. Mark S Johnson says:

    I had a feeling you might be sympathetic, but I also feel like the CD needs to turn the corner on that reputation. There was a general outpouring of neighborhood support for the upzone at 23rd and Union on hopes that it would spark a little love for that forlorn corner. Alas, the “market” doesn’t want to finance a mixed use building where you can live within easy walking distance of both Lake Washington and downtown. Maybe if everyone wasn’t so set on building in Roosevelt right now…

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