INITIATIVE 1351, the new class-size-reduction measure backed by the Washington Education Association, should give pause to anyone asked for a signature to place it on the November ballot.
There is much at stake. The debate is only partly about class sizes — it is really about who calls the shots on state education spending.
In McCleary v. State of Washington,
the state Supreme Court ruled the state isn’t meeting its constitutional obligation to fully finance basic education. By the 2017-2018 school year, lawmakers are supposed to provide billions more.
Exactly how much and how to do it, the court more or less left to lawmakers, who are gearing up for a thoughtful debate next year about reforms, accountability and student outcomes, in addition to revenue. Initiative 1351 offers a different answer: the union’s. Its vision is all about money, and it would lock the state into a hiring spree that would be difficult to reverse.
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The measure would require the state to hire some 12,000 new teachers — new union members, most likely. With them would come additional counselors, librarians, psychologists and other support staff. By the 2017-2019 budget period, a legislative estimate suggests it would cost state government $3.4 billion and local school districts even more.
Yet, rather cynically, the measure raises no taxes. That means voters get to make a warm and fuzzy decision while the Legislature makes the nasty one.
The measure has a noble goal — the reduction of class sizes, a point on which Washington ranks toward the bottom among states nationally. Each class in kindergarten through third grade would have no more than 15 to 17 students
, classes in fourth through 12th grades would be limited to 22 to 25
The National Center for Education Statistics indicates Washington averages 23.7 in elementary grades and 29.7 in the upper ones. There is much debate about whether smaller class sizes significantly improve student performance, and whether the effort represents the wisest investment of public dollars.
But if there is a notable effect, it is most apparent when students are young. Last year, the Washington State Institute for Public Policy aggregated the results of 53 studies and concluded that class-size reductions offer roughly twice the bang for the buck in kindergarten and first grade than at upper grade levels. The court suggested lawmakers might partially satisfy it by reducing K-3 class sizes at a cost of about $1 billion; lawmakers are tentatively planning to do that.
Trouble is, Initiative 1351 adds another $2.5 billion in spending on top of that, none of which counts toward the McCleary obligation of fully funding basic education.
Advocates argue the court ruling doesn’t go far enough, and so they would add class-size reform to the definition of basic education. There lies the trap for the Legislature: It is hard to imagine lawmakers taking a two-thirds vote to amend or repeal the initiative, as would be required in its first two years.
So as lawmakers begin a deeper debate on basic education, the blueprint practically would be written in stone for years to come. Would they raise taxes dramatically to pay for it? Curtail other promising K-12 efforts like the full rollout of all-day kindergarten? Gut higher education once again?
Washington has been placed in this spot before, by Initiative 728 in 2000 — another union-backed initiative to reduce class sizes without a funding source. It proved impossible to fund during the last recession and ultimately was repealed.
But this initiative certainly is trickier. By piggybacking on McCleary, it seems to finish the job of boxing in the Legislature that the court began. Maybe further class-size reductions are worth thinking about, in balance with everything else. That’s a job for lawmakers.
The deciding factor should be what’s right for kids, not for the union.
Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Erik Smith, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).