Politics & Government

Teacher raises may be incentive to pare down class-size initiative

To balance the state’s new two-year budget, Democrats in the state House want to substantially cut back Initiative 1351, the costly measure voters approved last fall to reduce class sizes in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Getting two-thirds of lawmakers to approve the plan — as is required for the Legislature to change a new voter-approved initiative — will be a challenge, House leaders say. But they have a strategy they hope will gain them some votes: Making annual cost-of-living increases for teachers part of the deal.

The House’s bill to repeal most provisions of I-1351 would simultaneously add cost-of-living raises for school employees to the state’s definition of basic education, making those annual pay raises something the Legislature can’t cut merely to balance a budget.

As it stands, the state has not funded annual cost-of-living adjustments for teachers since 2008, even though voters approved those raises in 2000 with Initiative 732. Lawmakers faced with tough financial times have repeatedly suspended I-732, which gave K-12 public school employees cost-of-living increases tied to inflation.

House budget writer Ross Hunter, D-Medina, said many of his fellow House Democrats represent districts where voters approved the class-size reductions laid out in I-1351, and are wary of scaling back the law. Hunter said he hopes incorporating the voter-approved cost-of-living raises into the state’s basic education funding formula will win some of those lawmakers’ support.

“What I hear from them is that they are worried that their voters are telling them they want more money into K-12 schools on a consistent basis,” Hunter said. “This is my response to that.”

Legislative leaders in both parties say they can’t find a way to pay for I-1351, which is projected to cost the state $2 billion in the next two years and almost $3 billion more in the 2017-19 biennium.

To reduce the cost of the initiative, House Democrats are proposing to amend it so it would reduce class sizes only in kindergarten through third grade — a policy the Legislature has already approved, but never funded.

Funding the K-3 class size reductions would cost only $412 million in the next two years, while also meeting one of the requirements of the state Supreme Court’s order that the state fully fund basic education in Washington by 2018.

In the education-funding case known as McCleary, the state Supreme Court ruled in 2012 the Legislature was failing to meet its constitutional duty to adequately fund basic education. The court also told the Legislature it may not eliminate part of its basic education program for “reasons unrelated to educational policy, such as fiscal crisis or mere expediency.”

The budget House Democrats unveiled Friday would fund the I-732 raises for school employees for the next two years. But unless the Legislature takes the step to make the cost-of-living increases part of the state’s basic education program, lawmakers could easily suspend the initiative again in the future.

Sen. Bruce Dammeier, one of the Senate’s leaders on education issues, said he and other Republican lawmakers agree with House Democrats that something needs to be done to reduce the cost of I-1351, along with increasing state funding of school employee salaries. Yet Dammeier, R-Puyallup, said those are complicated issues that should be tackled separately, rather than in the same bill.

“They still need a lot of votes from the other side of the aisle, and I don’t think this approach helps,” Dammeier said of the House plan.

Rich Wood, spokesman for the Washington Education Association, said the statewide teachers union supports making annual cost-of-living raises for teachers part of the state’s basic education obligation, but will oppose any attempt to change or scale back I-1351. The WEA was one of I-1351’s main supporters last year.

“We would support making the cost-of-living-adjustments part of basic education, but that should be a separate issue from the Legislature funding I-1351,” Wood said. “Those two should not be connected in the same piece of legislation.”

Wood said the Legislature could also be violating the will of the state Supreme Court if it amends I-1351, which established lower class sizes in kindergarten through 12th grade as part of the state’s new definition of basic education.

In its 2012 McCleary ruling, the Supreme Court said “any reduction of programs or offerings from the basic education program must be accompanied by an educational policy rationale.”

“There’s no sound educational reason to increase class sizes, which is essentially what they’d be doing if they don’t fund I-1351,” Wood said.

Hunter, the House budget writer, said House leaders believe they would improve student outcomes more by funding the K-3 class size reductions and raises for teachers, as well as by investing in areas such as preschool and early learning programs.

“We think that’s a reasonable argument to the court ... that we’re making an educational decision,” Hunter said.

Hunter said House leaders are no longer considering sending I-1351 back to voters, which the Legislature could do with fewer votes than would be required to change the initiative without public input.

Lawyers for both the House and Senate now say the Legislature can’t ask voters to repeal the law or approve a way to pay for it without also including an option for voters to maintain the existing law. Hunter said a second voter mandate to lower class sizes could create a new, more urgent budget crisis next year.

“Avoiding that scenario seems like an important thing,” Hunter said.