Dropout rate prompts call for tax measure
Levy would fund mentoring, early education programs
Spokane children’s advocates, concerned about societal problems stemming from Spokane’s high school dropout rate, hope voters will approve a citywide tax levy to keep young people in school and out of trouble.
The Children’s Investment Fund, modeled after successful, publicly funded initiatives in Seattle, Portland and Miami, would support such services as early childhood education, after-school mentoring and family support programs.
The $5 million fund would be financed through a five-year renewable tax levy of 35 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, according to Ben Stuckart, executive director of Communities in Schools of Spokane County and a member of the political action committee promoting the fund.
That amounts to about $69 a year for the median home in Spokane, assessed at $197,000, Stuckart said.
Money paid upfront to keep children in school, he said, will save Spokane millions of dollars in future spending on jails and social services.
“High school dropouts are eight times less likely to be employed, more likely to be on welfare and more likely to end up in jail,” Stuckart said.
Dropout rates are difficult to assess, in part because there is no standard way to track students who leave school and whether they continue their education. The percentage of Spokane students who graduate from high school in four years is 60 percent, compared with 72 percent statewide, according to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Stuckart said that means nearly 40 percent of Spokane students are dropping out.
“That is at the heart of all sorts of problems,” Stuckart said, citing studies that have shown every $1 invested in early childhood education saves society $3.50 to $4 down the road.
“If we decrease the dropout rate in Spokane by just 5 percent,” he said, “we would save each citizen between $200 and $250 per year.”
Many people believe schools are unable to stem the dropout rate on their own.
The Children’s Investment Fund would be administered by an independent board and include a five-year sunset after which voters would have to approve continuing the levy.
Stuckart said fund advocates would like the City Council to put the levy request to voters in April. The PAC has hired Robinson Research to poll 400 likely voters to gauge support for the measure.
Fund supporters have discussed the issue with Mayor Mary Verner and City Council members, including Michael Allen, who said he would be willing to introduce the measure if “the numbers work out.”
“Making this investment now could save us a lot of money in the future,” said Allen, who added that the issue was worth a strong public dialogue.
Other cities have approved similar funds for children.
Portland voters approved a $13 million Children’s Investment Fund in 2002 and renewed it last year. Seattle passed its $17 million Family and Education Levy in 1990 and renewed it in 1997 and 2004.
Mary Ann Murphy, executive director of Partners with Family and Children of Spokane, said the Children’s Investment Fund is an idea whose time has come.
“We can’t wait for somebody else to do it for us,” Murphy said. “We have to do it ourselves.”
Spokane’s measure could be put before voters in April without a petition drive if a majority of council members support it. Stuckart said a similar measure in Olympia, which was brought before voters through a petition drive, failed to pass.
Passage would require a simple majority of votes.