Schools and Poverty: The Good News from King County, Washington

Summary: In a flash of progressiveness, the voters of King County (Seattle) have levied themselves a substantial sum to lift children born to poverty, and may yet more fully put their money to their famously progressive mouth.

Perhaps it has been because of the seasonal holidays, a traditional time of gift giving, of brother and sisterhood, and of community celebration. In King County, that of Seattle, voters approved “Best Starts for Kids,” a six year levy to raise $392 million to fund a variety of youth intervention programs, from prenatal care to teen mental health.

Then, as though that passage didn’t stoke the fires of hope enough, news arrived last week that a rider had been attached (creatively!) to enabling legislation in the state legislature by Representative Jessyn Farrell (D-Seattle) that would raise approximately $600 million in “contract fees” over fifteen years from contracts let by the regional Sound Transit authority. These monies would be dedicated to a variety of county kid uplift programs — for homeless kids, or low income kids, or foster kids. Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza indeed.

I found myself counting the money as though all that remained was to figure how many teachers and instructional aides the money would buy. For the record, according to my rough calculations, $65 million of one year’s Best Starts money, salary and benefits, would buy 774 teachers or 2031 instructional aides.

How would such an infusion of staff affect the approximately 100,000 on free or reduced lunch across the county, as well as those in poverty that have chosen not to participate in the program? Would it be enough? Certainly it would be a large step in the right direction.

Well, friends, though this news be good, on closer reading of the details the inevitable caveats started to appear before my eyes. First off, though in my enthusiasm I had already hired the teachers and instructional aides, I realized in my second or third reading that all this citizen largess would flow through the county, and be controlled by the county, and would not flow through schools, let alone my fantasy hands.

Schools would be left to wait on the legislature, under sanction by the state supreme court to increase school funding markedly, for their own financial transfusion.

None of the pot of gold would provide for academics directly, but would address the underlying complex of factors stemming from poverty that teachers know make school academics problematic.

Now this falls well short of “Bah, humbug,” though I confess my school partisan disappointment. The nearly one billion dollars in the two measures should provide a very tangible infusion of care to the same kids school people strive to educate, and whose troubles undermine readiness to learn, whether that be kids whose mothers now have support in parenting, foster kids once left dangling, or depressed teenagers whose lives are now rebuilt.

Though the Best Starts money is secure and specific programs conceptualized, the Sound Transit contract fee pot of gold awaits first a decision to put the expansion of the rail system up to the voters of three counties, and then passage of same. So far, voters have seemed alert to the benefits of rapid transit, but the vein has already been mined deeply as the region catches up on its transit options.

Moreover, I wonder if voters will view the contract fee/kid support provision as a backdoor tax similar to the Best Starts for Kids they have already approved, on the grounds that contractors will simply pass the fees on to the county as part of correspondingly enlarged bids. In effect, then, voters will have paid the contract fees themselves.

Let us agitate, meanwhile, that the county not remain only in its own silo, and join forces where appropriate with schools. School personnel should be at the table when decisions are made, if they are not already, for their deep experience with kids, and for the obvious reason that we work with the same population.

Whether kids are in preschool, or kindergarten on, they see teachers daily who will serve as an early warning system on students’ welfare and can refer them to the enriched resources available through the county. Coordination of service will require that nurses, or counselors, or teachers are linked to ongoing health or mental health care outside the school in order that their respective work will not be at cross purposes. The teen health and mental health clinics in schools envisaged in Best Starts will clearly require coordination with schools.

To the county’s credit under the leadership of Executive Dow Constantine, each of the items in the Best Starts for Kids plan cites research as its guiding light. Check out the county website as referenced earlier. By report, much of the underlying data reflects frustrated findings of many researchers that one dollar spent now to solve a problem in society saves four, fifteen, twenty-five or more dollars down the road in social costs such as welfare, prisons, and the like.

So let us also lobby for research linkages with local universities to design programs, vet those underway, and provide a regional research base on top of what already exists to guide future assaults on the nexus of poverty, student health and academic wellness.

I have in mind various models that stem from the data, and about which I have written previously. The Harlem Children’s Zone deeply integrates prenatal and health care services with the efforts of the schools. KIPP charter schools in Newark dedicate funds to in school social workers to channel kids and their families to needed services in the community. In Seattle, the Treehouse organization benefiting foster kids pays part of the salary of certificated counselors in the school and maintains a network of young college graduates to act as mentors to kids.

Though not all of such efforts seem in the wheelhouse of Best Starts for Kids, they are examples of programs that link outside agency with the ongoing welfare of students within schools.

While we wait… and wait….for enlightened federal policy that attacks poverty at its source with jobs and training, and for state legislative funding that gives schools a fighting chance to impact the effects of poverty in the classroom, Best Starts and its companion in the prospective Sound Transit transactions aims to impact the fallout from poverty for kids before they become more chronic and less malleable.

In the end, it is the effect of poverty on kids that poses the greatest challenges for teachers in the classroom.

So, really, this is Happy Holidays for kids of poverty in King County, and for those yet unborn. We may grouse about our taxes on payment day, but here in this abundant locale, blessed by economic vigor and sea and mountain scapes, we also have a political environment where rational social policy is possible, (though it typically takes a while to arrive). Our kids of poverty and the work of our teachers will be the better for it.

Now vote for the extension of Sound Transit when it comes around the bend.

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