THE League of Education Voters (LEV) opposes Initiative 1351, a statewide class-size reduction initiative on the November ballot.
Some familiar with LEV have found our stance curious given the organization’s history.
In 2000, our founders authored and passed Initiative 728, the first class-size initiative. Nine years later, we endorsed the redefinition of “basic education” developed by our state Legislature, which includes smaller class sizes of 17 students in grades K-3, upon which the state Supreme Court’s recent education-funding ruling is based.
LEV has always supported class-size reduction as one necessary gap-closing strategy for grades K-3 and high-poverty schools. However, we recognize it is not sufficient.
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The pathway to providing a high-quality public education for all students begins with identifying and funding what works. We know there is no single silver bullet that would close the opportunity and achievement gaps for Washington students.
We believe I-1351 would preclude our ability to make investments in other proven strategies, such as early learning and college readiness. It would also make it impossible for us to invest in what researchers describe as the biggest school-based difference in a child’s education: teachers.
In order to meaningfully improve the education of all Washington’s students, we must live up to our responsibilities as a state and adequately compensate our teachers. Washington teachers have not received a state cost-of-living increase in more than five years. In addition, we have a statewide pay scale that ranks on the low end nationally and undercompensates teachers in urban areas.
While the state has been unable to meet its constitutional funding obligations, districts have underwritten “basic education” costs, including compensation, from local levy funding. Not only is this unconstitutional, it injects animosity across districts as teachers and administrators are left to wrangle over how to deliver the best education for our kids without the resources to do so.
Salary enhancements should be a state obligation. Our state should update the pay scale to reflect the importance of our teacher workforce and should assume full responsibility for that compensation. We need to end the piecemeal approach to paying our teachers.
One strategy, high-quality early learning, including preschool and full-day kindergarten, can significantly reduce and prevent gaps in later years. For every dollar spent on early learning, there is a return of $7 or more, which comes from a variety of savings, including decreased costs for special education, grade repetition and criminal justice. We believe early learning is critical to a student’s success, which is why we fought, unsuccessfully, to include it in the 2009 redefinition of basic education.
Academic acceleration is another proven strategy to raise the achievement for all Washington students. Instead of just catching kids up, it pushes them forward. In 2013, state Reps. Eric Pettigrew, D-Seattle, and Chad Magendanz, R-Issaquah, co-sponsored legislation creating the Academic Acceleration Incentive Fund, which provides resources to support districts adopting acceleration policies.
The Federal Way School District initiated an acceleration program long before it caught the attention of the Legislature. The School District increased the number of low-income and minority students taking upper-level courses (Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses) by 2.5 times over a four-year period while holding exam passing rates steady.
And when talking about proven strategies, we shouldn’t forget the College Bound Scholarship Program, which provides financial and academic support services to low-income and foster-care students who enroll in middle school. In 2013, nearly 8 out of 10 College Bound students graduated high school compared to 6 out of 10 non-College Bound students.
As the leader of Washington’s only statewide advocacy organization that works to improve public education from early learning through higher education, I believe I-1351, with its singular focus, robs our leaders and educators of the necessary flexibility to employ a range of diverse and proven strategies — like high-quality early learning, college readiness and effective K-12 teachers — to help close gaps. While the efforts described above are by no means enough, they are what we can do today to reset our public education system toward one that helps all students succeed.
Chris Korsmo is chief executive of the League of Education Voters.