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Deadline Looms For Voter Initiative To Make Wash. Class Sizes Smaller

Ted S. Warren
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Supporters of a statewide ballot initiative directing Washington lawmakers to provide enough funding to drastically decrease K-12 class sizes are confident they've gathered enough signatures to send their measure to voters in November.

More than 320,000 people have signed petitions to put Initiative 1351 on the ballot this fall, Class Size Counts campaign manager Mary Howes said Monday. The number is well over the required 246,000 valid signatures, which must be turned into the secretary of state's office by Thursday. 

Plan Calls For More Teachers, But Not More Revenue

Credit Source: Secretary of State's Office
Currently, Washington state pays the equivalent of a full-time teacher salary to each school district for roughly every 25 students in Grades K-3. If Initiative 1351 passes, 17 students in Grades K-3 in a typical school would correspond with one full-time teacher salary. In a high-poverty school, 15 students in grades K-3 would correspond with a teacher salary.

If approved, the initiative would not place a firm cap on class sizes. Instead, I-1351 effectively calls for the hiring an additional 12,000 teachers across Washington state with the intention of lowering the state's pupil-to-teacher ratio at a potential cost of $3.4 billion over two years.

In 2000, Washington voters passed a similar initiative directing dollars from a state budget surplus to fund reductions in class sizes. Like that plan, I-1351 does not raise additional revenues to cover the costs, which raises big question marks for critics.

Lawmakers unceremoniously repealed the earlier initiative in 2012, but Howes says I-1351 is different from its predecessor. It links class size to the state's definition of basic public education and to the state Supreme Court's McCleary v. Washington ruling, which found state legislators have failed to adequately fund public education.

"This is all part of full funding, so we're optimistic that [I-1351] will tie in with that decision, and therefore, there will be a secure source of funding for it," Howes said.

Costs And Impacts

Brookings Institution researcher Matthew M. Chingos concluded that reducing class sizes by seven to 10 students can have a significant positive impact on academic performance for specific groups, including students in the early grades and low-income students. However, the same researcher found statewide mandates to reduce class sizes for all grades "are likely to produce disappointing results" given the cost and efforts required.

I-1351 would come with "enormous" costs, says Washington Research Council president Richard S. Davis, likely necessitating a tax increase of some kind and tying local school districts' hands as they write their budgets.

"It would pretty much squeeze out every bit of discretionary spending, including innovation in ed reform," Davis said.

Only Three Other States Have Larger Teacher-To-Student Ratio 

But Howes says even with the McCleary ruling, I-1351 supporters aren't seeing the Legislature take more drastic steps to address class sizes. Figures from the National Education Association show only three states have a larger student-to-teacher ratio than Washington state, whose ratio of 19.7 students per teacher is well above the national average of 15.9-to-one.

"We're really not seeing progress and we're concerned schools aren't going to be fully-funded by 2018," Howes said. "This lack of funding is causing our students not to get the attention they deserve, and they're in some of the most crowded classrooms in the nation."

Howes says the targets set forth in I-1351 would make Washington state's student-to-teacher ratio more in line with national averages.

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.