September 30, 2010 in City

Children’s advocates optimistic about fund

Property tax proposal aimed at dropout rate
By The Spokesman-Review
 

Supporters of Spokane’s proposed tax levy aimed at helping children stay in school are confident voters will say yes in November despite competing with multiple state initiatives that, if approved, would also increase taxes.

“We’ve had folks out in the field (going door-to-door), and I think the citizens in our city understand the challenges facing our children,” said Anne Marie Axworthy, a Children’s Investment Fund steering committee member and director of community development at Avista Corp.

“We are talking to them about funding programs that are proven to work if you invest in children at the right level.”

The idea for the Children’s Investment Fund stems from a concern among community leaders, educators and child advocates about Spokane Public Schools’ approximately 29 percent dropout rate. Students who fail to graduate are more likely to end up in jail, add to the strain on social services and are likely to be unemployed, studies show.

Spokane has numerous programs that support children outside of school, but they lack sustainable funding, said Ben Stuckart, director of Communities in Schools and spokesman for the Children’s Investment Fund.

Axworthy added, “schools cannot do it (decrease the dropout rate) alone.”

The six-year levy, called Proposition 1, would raise $5 million annually and would cost property owners in the city of Spokane about 35 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. The money would be used to support early-childhood learning, abuse and neglect prevention and treatment programs, mentoring programs, and before- and after-school activities.

An 11-person oversight committee, made up of representatives from different city zones, minority groups and youth, would decide how to spend the money.

“The community has a huge part in how successful children are in life,” Stuckart said. “Seventy-five percent of a child’s life is spent outside of school. That is why our community must rally around our children and support programs that allow our children to come to school ready to learn and support them during the out-of-school-time hours.”

Spokane voters have a history of approving property tax levies that support children, including a $288 million bond and $50 million levy for Spokane Public Schools approved in 2009.

A poll conducted late last year found voter support for the Children’s Investment Fund: 62 percent were for it, 9 percent were undecided and 29 percent were opposed, a fund spokesman said.

In addition, the Children’s Investment Fund concept has picked up numerous endorsements, including those of Catholic Charities, Avista Corp., the Center for Justice, Spokane Arts Commission, Spokane Education Association, Volunteers of America and, most recently, Greater Spokane Incorporated.

Stuckart said organizers are “excited to have the endorsement of Greater Spokane Incorporated, the area’s only regional chamber of commerce and economic development council. GSI represents over 1,300 local businesses and shows how broad the support for Proposition 1 is.”

One endorsement is missing, however: the Spokane Public Schools board.

“We are not coming out for it or against it,” said Sue Chapin, board president.

Chapin said the organizers “are wonderful people. They are doing great things. They are people I respect.”

But she said the board can’t support organizers’ claim that the Children’s Investment Fund will decrease the current dropout rate by as much as 20 percent in the first six years.

“Our position is that if we endorse it, then we are endorsing that claim,” Chapin said. “It’s too specific.”

But Stuckart defended the fund, saying, “The goal of the fund over the next six-year period is to do as much as is reasonably possible to work with our schools through complementary programs to lower the dropout rate by at least 20 percent, which would be a dropout rate of 23 percent.”

If that doesn’t happen, voters have a chance to reject the levy when it comes up for a vote again in six years.

Other accountability measures include an annual audit and a promise that no more than $250,000 annually will be spent on administration. Plus, said Axworthy, “the nonprofits will be made accountable to show how the money they’ve been given made a difference.”

On Wednesday, the Washington Policy Center issued a report criticizing the establishment of the Children’s Investment Fund. The conservative anti-tax group’s report claims the “cumulative annual dropout rate” is a much-lower 8 percent, and that “it would be impossible to determine whether the new spending from the Children’s Investment Fund made any difference.”

But Stuckart said the policy center is “clearly trying to skew the data.”

The cumulative dropout rate represents how many students drop out of one grade during one academic year. The more common figure is called a cohort dropout rate, which takes into account how many students drop out of each high school grade level in a single year and factors in students set to continue the next semester.

Regarding the fund’s spending, Stuckart said, “only programs that have measurable results in keeping kids in school will receive the money.”


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