Washingtonians last November chose not to let Democrats control the state Senate. After what happened in Olympia early Wednesday morning, it’s hard to quarrel with the voters’ verdict.
On Tuesday, the Legislature appeared on the verge of major bipartisan achievements. After months of wrangling that led to three overtime sessions, the Democratic majority of the House of Representatives and Republican majority of the Senate had settled on a surprisingly good operating budget, a solid construction budget, plus a roads-and-transit package that required a hard tax vote from many Senate Republicans.
But after all of it had seemingly come together, the Senate’s minority Democrats suddenly threw a wrench into the gears, apparently at the behest of the state’s teachers union.
Refusing to suspend the impossible spending demands of last year’s union-backed “class size initiative,” they demanded that Republicans gut the state’s high school graduation requirements.
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In effect, they blew a $2 billion hole in the carefully negotiated operating budget.
This move was baffling for three reasons:
• The Legislature had just approved the best education budget in decades.
The House and Senate had approved $1.3 billion in new spending on the K-12 system, including all-day kindergarten, pay raises for teachers, and reduced class sizes in kindergarten through third grade.
They had invested an additional $150 million in early childhood education. In the capital budget, they had earmarked $200 million for new classrooms to accommodate the lower class sizes.
• The multibillion-dollar initiative Senate Democrats suddenly embraced this week has been a fantasy since the day it was written.
Neither the Democratic governor nor the Democratic House had attempted to fund it. The state simply doesn’t have the money it would take to expand administrators, support staff, counselors, teachers and custodians at every grade level, plus the additional classrooms I-1351 would also require.
Even if the state had the revenues, hiring so many educators so quickly would inevitably force districts to lower their standards for new teachers.
• Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Senate Democratic minority discredited itself with this sneak attack on the work of House Democrats and Senate Republicans.
The Republicans felt blindsided and double-crossed. Democrats in the House discovered that they’d taken a big political risk perhaps for nothing. In the public interest, they’d bucked union allies by voting to suspend I-1351. Their Senate counterparts left them hanging.
Were the Senate Democrats actually bent on reviving I-1351? Or were they so committed to watering down Washington’s graduation standards that they’d sabotage hard-won budget deals negotiated by fellow Democrats?
Neither possibility speaks well of their judgment — or capacity to govern.