I-1351: A major threat to safety net, higher ed

If initiatives could be charged with crimes, I-1351 – the class size measure on November’s ballot – would be convicted of malicious mischief.

Innocuous as it sounds, it is a grave threat to Washington’s safety net – to funding for foster children, early learning, homeless families, foster children and the mentally ill. If approved, it could also push the Legislature to further cannibalize the state’s higher education system.

How could an initiative that promises smaller classes do that kind of harm? It’s all about the price tag: upwards of $4 billion through 2019. Because I-1351 wouldn’t raise an additional penny toward its own cost, most or all of that money would have to be carved out of the rest of a state budget that has already been pared repeatedly and brutally since the Great Recession.

This is the worst possible time for an unfunded mandate of such magnitude.

Lawmakers are already turning the budget inside out as they move to satisfy the Washington Supreme Court’s mandate to fully fund basic education by 2018. No one has found a clear path to full funding, which will require the state to sink at least an additional $2 billion a year into the public schools.

Closing tax “loopholes” won’t come close, and there’s no evidence that Washingtonian voters are in the mood for broad tax increases. Coming up with the money will be a supreme achievement, if lawmakers can pull it off without sacrificing the safety net and the state’s public colleges.

That’s the challenge the state faces without a new initiative adding billions of dollars more to the tab.

There’s a critical distinction to make here. The supreme court’s 2012 McCleary decision addressed public education in its entirety. Using the Legislature’s own policy blueprints, the justices identified a broad range of items that need more money, including class time, high school credits, bus transportation, textbooks, teacher salaries and smaller class sizes in kindergarten through the third grade.

In contrast, Initiative 1351 is anything but holistic. It narrowly targets class size and staff-to-student ratios. Because McCleary already mandates smaller classes in K-3, the initiative’s actual effects would be in the upper grades.

But there’s a reason lawmakers and the court haven’t focused on class size in grades four through 12.

Researchers have been studying the effects of small classes for decades. They’ve found evidence that low student-to-teacher ratios – say, 17 to one – can be a good investment in the first years of schools. Past the third grade, though, the payoff shrinks or entirely disappears. Except in some highly specialized classes, there’s no hard evidence older kids get the same advantages.

Don’t take our word for it. The Legislature’s research arm, the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, reviewed dozens of studies last year. Its conclusion:

“In the earliest K–12 grades, reducing class size has a high probability of producing a favorable outcome – that is, where the long-term benefits of reducing class size consistently exceed the costs. In the upper grades, on the other hand, reducing class size poses a substantial risk of an unfavorable outcome – that is, where costs may often exceed benefits.”

A crucial concept here is opportunity cost – what we won’t be able to afford if we buy Initiative 1351.

The billions we’d spend on small classes for older students could otherwise be spent caring for the state’s most needy – traumatized and abused children, people with untreated psychiatric disorders, preschoolers from poor families and many others with dire needs. The billions could help keep the doors of college open for those older students once they graduate from high school.

There are no magic money mills in Olympia. It’s hard to imagine how I-1351 could be paid for – on top of McCleary – without curtailing investment in human services and higher education. Wonderful as its unfunded promises may seem, this is a destructive initiative. Voters should kill it in November.