To balance the state budget two years ago, state lawmakers suspended most of a voter-approved initiative to lower class sizes.
Now, Democrats in Olympia are talking about bringing back Initiative 1351 — or at least parts of it.
“The members of our caucus are very interested in moving forward with it,” said state Rep. Kris Lytton, D-Anacortes, who chairs the House Finance Committee.
As approved by voters in 2014, the initiative would lower class sizes in all grades from kindergarten to high school, while adding guidance counselors, school nurses and social workers.
But lawmakers agreed in 2015 that they couldn’t afford I-1351’s price tag of $2 billion every two years — especially as they were struggling to comply with a court order to fix the way the state pays for public schools.
After some debate, the Legislature agreed to suspend much of the initiative, keeping only the parts that would reduce class sizes in kindergarten through third grade.
The remainder of the initiative was put off for four years, but not repealed.
The members of our caucus are very interested in moving forward with it.
State Rep. Kris Lytton, D-Anacortes and chairwoman of the House Finance Committee
Now, lawmakers are divided on whether to repeal the rest of the initiative or start to implement some pieces they chose to delay — including lowering class sizes for additional groups of students.
Republicans favor repealing I-1351 in its entirety. Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said he doesn’t see a way the Legislature can pay for it.
“I think there’s no other reasonable path to fund education and other services this year,” Schoesler said. “The price tag is insurmountable.”
Lawmakers are under a court order to correct the way the state pays for public schools by September 2018. That will mean ending the state’s reliance on local school district property tax levies to pay teachers and other school employees.
In the McCleary case, the Washington State Supreme Court has declared that arrangement unconstitutional because it can lead to some districts having more money to spend on education than others.
A McCleary fix is expected to take up most of the Legislature’s time this year and potentially cost the state billions of dollars, limiting lawmakers’ ability to pay for other large things such as I-1351, Schoesler said.
Democrats say they must proceed carefully when repealing elements of the initiative, because its class-size reductions and school-staffing increases now are included in the state’s definition of basic education.
The price tag is insurmountable.
Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville
Ignoring the state’s basic education responsibility got lawmakers into trouble in the McCleary case. In 2012, the state Supreme Court ruled lawmakers were failing to fully fund basic education as defined at the time.
The court also has said lawmakers can’t alter the state’s definition of basic education solely to save money, without showing a good educational reason for the change, said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington.
By repealing the whole initiative, “I think we would be in violation of court’s clear constitutional directive,” Sullivan said.
While Republicans say reducing class sizes in upper grades hasn’t been shown to substantially improve student learning, Sullivan said many aspects of I-1351 “clearly have educational benefits, without question.”
A school-funding plan Democrats introduced this month would bring back certain pieces of I-1351, such as hiring more guidance counselors, adding school nurses and lowering class sizes in career- and technical-education classes.
Some members of the Democratic House majority would like to revive even more of the initiative this year, Sullivan said, but it’s unclear whether that will be financially possible.
Doing nothing about I-1351 this year isn’t an option for lawmakers.
Although their 2015 vote to suspend I-1351 technically is good for another two years, lawmakers still must take some kind of action this year to deal with the cost of the measure, leaders said.
Doing nothing about I-1351 this year isn’t an option for lawmakers, because they never repealed the 2014 initiative, but instead left it on the books.
That’s because in 2012, lawmakers approved a rule requiring them to pass a two-year budget that balances not just over two years, but over four.
The requirement that budgets be sustainable beyond the upcoming two-year budget cycle means lawmakers this year must pay for I-1351 or vote again to suspend or repeal it, said David Schumacher, the budget director for Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee.
Alternately, the Legislature could lift the four-year balanced-budget requirement, as Inslee’s two-year budget proposes.
A bill requested by Inslee’s budget office would suspend the four-year budgeting rule for the next six years, until the Legislature can comply with the McCleary decision and decide how to deal with I-1351, Schumacher said.
Schoesler said he doesn’t support getting rid of the four-year budgeting rule, even temporarily. He said before the requirement went into effect, lawmakers would pass a budget that balanced for two years, but then “the next two budgets would be in deficit.”
“It prevents those really short-sighted decisions,” he said of the budgeting rule. “It enforces discipline on all three branches of government, and it takes those peaks and valleys out that I think are detrimental.”
Agreeing on a plan for I-1351 could come easier this year than in 2015, when lawmakers had to summon a two-thirds majority vote to suspend the initiative.
Now that more time has passed, suspending, amending or repealing I-1351 would require the support of only a simple majority of lawmakers under state law.
Lawmakers this year must come up with a new two-year spending plan that includes the school-funding fixes required under McCleary.
Republican leaders in the Senate are set to release their budget proposal first in the coming weeks, while House Democrats will release theirs shortly thereafter.