The more Washingtonians looked at Initiative 1351 last fall, the less they liked it. Public support for the “class size” measure was plummeting in the weeks before the election. It barely passed and probably would have failed had the vote been held a little later.
As the voters were realizing in a hurry, the measure promised the moon and didn’t offer so much as a step stool to get there. It demanded that the Legislature spend billions of dollars hiring 17,000-plus school administrators, custodians, classroom assistants, teachers and other staff, yet it didn’t provide a penny of the needed funding.
Lawmakers and the governor, Democrats and Republicans alike, have no idea how to supersize the staffing in Washington’s schools without robbing money from more urgent priorities – including the supreme court’s mandate that they fully fund school buses, text books, kindergarten and other educational basics.
They’re now looking at a promising idea: Put the initiative back on the ballot – this time with the taxes needed to pay for it. Then let the voters decide whether they want to write the check.
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Washington lawmakers have never done this with an initiative before, but in 1995, the state attorney general – at the time, Chris Gregoire – concluded that it was legal. The state constitution requires a two-thirds vote from both chambers of the Legislature to amend or repeal an initiative within two years of its passage. But asking voters for clarification is another matter. According to the attorney general, that can be done with simple majorities in the House and Senate.
A redo may be as good an option as there is with I-1351.
Ballooning school payrolls the way the initiative dictates would cost the state an estimated $4.7 billion through 2019. Local school districts could wind up on the hook for hundreds of millions more. Without new taxes, that money doesn’t exist – unless lawmakers want to carve it out of existing state services, including higher education, early learning, child protection, mental health care, criminal justice and other priorities.
The court mandate already requires the Legislature to reduce class sizes in kindergarten through the third grade. Research suggests that smaller class sizes can make a difference in those early grades. But there’s little evidence that small classes carry the same benefits for older students.
After a nationwide survey of the studies, the Washington State Institute for Public Policy – the Legislature’s research arm – concluded in 2013 that money spent reducing class sizes in the upper grades could be better spent elsewhere. Yet the upper grades are exactly where I-1351 would force additional spending.
In any case, I-1351 has a dirty little secret: Much of the outlay would not actually shrink classes. Most of the money would not be used to hire teachers, and the measure gives local districts a lot of latitude to spend it on something other than teacher-to-student ratios.
All the reasons that made this initiative a stinker last fall are reasons to give the voters another shot at it. Lawmakers can put the exact same measure on the ballot, but this time with a funding provision – an income tax, say, or an increment to the sales tax.
Then, if Washingtonians prove they’re willing to pay for fatter staffing, so be it. I-1351’s supporters can hardly object to a referendum that includes revenues – unless, that is, they were trying to fool the voters last year into thinking they were getting a freebie.