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With McCleary Mandate Looming, Will Wash. Class Size Initiative Help Or Hurt?

Kyle Stokes

If a recent poll is any indication, Washington voters appear poised to again pass a ballot initiative that calls for steeply reducing public school class sizes, this time by hiring more than 7,000 teachers over the next four years.

Voters passed a similar measure in 2000 that had little effect. Lawmakers repealed it two years ago and the state's student-to-teacher ratio remains one of the nation's largest.

But the group behind that 2000 class-size initiative has urged voters to reject this year's version, Initiative 1351. The group joins skeptical lawmakers and newspaper editorial boards who fear a class size-reduction measure would complicate their task of meeting a state Supreme Court order to pump another $2 billion into the state's K-12 budget. 

"We believe I-1351 will preclude our ability to make investments in other proven strategies, such as early learning and college readiness," wrote Chris Korsmo, head of the League of Education Voters, whose original founders "authored and passed Initiative 728 in 2000."

The argument exasperates I-1351 sponsor Mary Howes, who says spending significant sums on reducing class sizes ought to be a critical piece of ensuring lawmakers ensure basic education is adequately funded, as the high court required in its McCleary decision.

"I'm baffled by people that say, 'We know this is the right thing for kids, we'd really like to address it, but we're not going to,'" Howes said. "If we know this is what's right for kids — and it is — then it's time to stop the excuses and do something about it."

How I-1351 Would Work

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.

The class-size initiative would not place a hard limit on the number of students in each classroom. Instead, it would change the basic budget assumptions that determine how much state funding each school receives.

Right now, a school receives the equivalent of one teacher's salary for roughly every 25 students it enrolls in grades K-3 and for every 27 students in grades 4-6. The numbers change depending on the grade.

The class-size initiative would change those basic assumptions. For instance, instead of 25 second-graders equating to one teacher's salary, the state would fund one teacher for every 17 second-graders under I-1351. In a high-poverty school, the ratio is even smaller at one teacher for every 15 second-graders.

The price tag for the proposal: $2 billion over the next two years, according to the state's Office of Fiscal Management, and another $2.7 billion in 2017 to hire roughly 7,000 teachers, 17,000 nurses, librarians and other school-based aides as well as 1,000 central-office staff by 2019.

How I-1351 Would Impact The State Budget

The left-leaning Washington State Budget & Policy Center says it would be "impractical" for the state to both fund a class-size reduction measure and find potentially $2.2 billion to add to the K-12 budget to satisfy the McCleary mandate.

"Class-size reduction was just one piece of McCleary, and actually not the largest piece," said Richard Davis of the Washington Research Council, a right-leaning think tank supported by many of the state's biggest businesses.

According to the Budget & Policy Center's analysis, only $560 million of the McCleary-related funding hikes would go toward reducing class sizes, and only for grades K-3.

'Solving A Budget Problem By Crowding Classrooms'

"The big cost of McCleary is relieving local school districts of what they've been spending, and making that the state's responsibility," Davis said.

According to Davis, many local school districts have been picking up the state's slack by raising their own property taxes, and the court's McCleary decision is about forcing the state to do its part.

"It's not saying, 'You need to throw a whole lot of money at education,' although a lot of education advocates — and a lot of people in the business community would be among them — believe that more money needs to go there," Davis said.

But Howes says it's counterintuitive to spend more money on education without addressing class sizes, which she and her campaign's supporters see as a core issue.

"Right now, we're solving the budget problem by crowding our kids into classrooms and not giving them what they need, and that has to stop," she said.

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