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The campaign for Initiative 1351 makes a simple argument — teachers with fewer students can give them more attention than they can in crowded classrooms.

It’s a message that resonates with many parents — just ask those at Seattle’s Gatewood Elementary who recently raised almost $67,000 in less than a week to keep their first-grade classrooms below 20 students.

But I-1351, backed primarily by the state teachers’ union, would do much more than lower class sizes from kindergarten through high school.

Of the roughly 25,000 new jobs it would create, only about 7,400 would go to classroom teachers.

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The rest, about 18,000, would go to everyone else who makes a school run, from principals, school nurses and guidance counselors to janitors, groundskeepers and mechanics.

Ramping up all of those new jobs would cost the state almost $5 billion through 2019 and then nearly $2 billion a year after that, according to the state Office of Financial Management.

That’s a hefty tab considering that the entire current two-year state budget for public education is about $15 billion.

While the initiative would move Washington’s national class-size ranking from near the bottom to about average, the cost is so high that even some of the organizations that generally advocate for smaller class sizes worry that the initiative would jeopardize other educational priorities. They’re either opposing I-1351 (the League of Education Voters) or staying neutral (Washington Association of School Administrators).

Supporters say I-1351 simply takes the staffing levels the state Legislature’s bipartisan advisory committee — the Quality Education Council (QEC) — has recommended and makes them law.

“Putting this on the books makes it clear,” said the state’s education chief, Randy Dorn, who chaired the QEC in 2010 and is still a member. “Without pressure and leverage, not much happens in Olympia.”

But opponents strongly disagree.

State Rep. Ross Hunter, the Bellevue Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, says nothing requires the Legislature to follow exactly what the QEC recommends.

While sympathetic to the goals of I-1351, Hunter says he can’t endorse it — largely because it doesn’t say where all that money would come from.

“In the short run, I don’t know how to pay for it and so I’m not supporting it,” he said.

Low-ranking state

Washington class sizes are high — no one argues that.

The Class Size Counts campaign cites data from the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, which ranks Washington 47th out of the 50 states.

That ranking is based on overall teacher-to-student ratios, an indirect measure of class sizes because it includes teachers who don’t have a classroom of their own.

The latest federal data, based on teacher surveys, also places Washington among states with the largest average class sizes, with a 24-student average in elementary schools, and 30 in secondary schools.

The Legislature already has agreed to lower average class sizes in kindergarten through third grade to 17 by the fall of 2017.

In addition, I-1351 would lower the average size for grades 4-12 to 25 students over the next four years.

In schools where more than half the families are considered low-income, average classes would be even smaller, with 15 students in kindergarten, 22 students in grade 4 and 23 students in grades 5 through 12.

Those were the 2010 recommendations of the Quality Education Council, as part of its description of ideal staffing levels in typical elementary, middle and high schools.

So far, the Legislature has agreed to some of the QEC’s recommendations — such as lowering K-3 class sizes — but rejected others, such as making classes smaller in the upper grades.

When he was in the House last year, state Sen. Marko Liias, D-Mukilteo, authored a bill that would have adopted the QEC’s staffing recommendations as a package deal. But the bill never got out of the Education Committee.

Liias, who supports I-1351, argues that all of the jobs the initiative would create are important and passage would help satisfy the requirements of the state Supreme Court’s 2012 McCleary decision, which found the state isn’t meeting its constitutional obligation to adequately fund its public schools.

“The state is supposed to pay for basic education, and you can’t have a basic education if the plumbing is not working in the school and the toilets don’t flush,” Liias said. “You can’t have a basic education if you don’t have nurses and lunch ladies to provide for the health and nutrition of the students.”

Other lawmakers disagree about what constitutes a basic education and have preferred to consider the QEC’s recommendations a la carte.

For example, in 2010 the Legislature agreed to reduce K-3 classes as well as increase spending on transportation and basic materials and supplies.

But that doesn’t mean the Legislature has to do everything the QEC recommends, Hunter said.

“The people don’t elect the QEC, they elect the Legislature,” he said.

The Legislature also listens to its research arm, the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, which reviewed the class-size evidence and found mixed results.

The benefits of reducing K-3 class sizes (which can include higher test scores and graduation rates) likely outweigh the costs, according to the Institute’s 2013 review, but it said that analysis doesn’t hold for the upper grades.

Fixing K-3 class sizes alone is expected to cost $1.3 billion in the 2017-19 budget, and the Legislature hasn’t yet figured out where to find those dollars.

I-1351 would cost the state almost $2 billion a year on top of that.

Money question

Arguments against the initiative in the voters’ guide call it a “budget-buster” that would pay mostly for bureaucracy.

The League of Education Voters — which led the charge to pass a class-size-reduction initiative in 2000 that was eventually repealed in 2012 — voted recently to oppose it, citing concerns it would take money away from other needs such as early education and college readiness.

Along with the state association for school administrators, the board members of the Washington State School Directors’ Association, which represents school-board members, is staying neutral, with concerns that there’s no money in it to help local districts pay the share of employee salaries that the state doesn’t cover — an estimated $1 billion.

I-1351 also doesn’t include school-construction money to help growing districts such as Seattle and Lake Washington, which say they don’t have the physical space for smaller classes.

But the initiative would provide some flexibility for districts strapped for space. They could use the money, for example, to pay for additional staff other than teachers who provide direct services to students.

The initiative doesn’t face any organized opposition campaign raising money to defeat it.

The Class Size Counts campaign promoting I-1351 has received about $3.5 million in contributions, with the largest donations coming from the National Education Association and the Washington Education Association (WEA) as well as other unions.

“Teachers are supporting 1351 because they know what an impact it is going to be for kids in the classrooms,” said WEA President Kim Mead. “If we don’t do anything, we’ll remain 47th in the nation. I know our kids deserve better than that, and quite frankly, it’s time that we do something about it.”

John Higgins: 206-464-3145 or jhiggins@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @jhigginsST