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News / Northwest

Class-size measure could add to Washington’s budget woes

The Columbian
Published: October 4, 2014, 5:00pm

Class Size Counts

No on Initiative 1351

SEATTLE — Education advocates in Washington state are pushing a measure limiting class sizes, but opponents say the initiative on the November ballot could make a bad budget situation worse as lawmakers scramble to pay for court-ordered reforms.

They are seeking cash to put more money into a series of education reforms under the Washington Supreme Court’s McCleary decision, including dollars for shrinking class sizes in kindergarten through third grade.

Mary Howes of Class Size Counts says the initiative mirrors the reductions already approved by the Legislature. However, it would make sure class sizes are part of basic education funding and are not overlooked when lawmakers find money to pay for education reform, she said.

“This would be a lasting improvement for Washington kids,” Howes said.

But the state Office of Financial Management, in an analysis of the fiscal impact of Initiative 1351, says the money needed for the measure goes beyond the estimated McCleary dollars. State financial experts believe the initiative would eventually cost the state about $2 billion a year to pay for thousands more teachers and other school staff.

That would be on top of the about $2 billion a year the Legislature is already seeking for education reform under the McCleary decision.

In the 2012 McCleary decision, the state Supreme Court ruled that lawmakers are not meeting their constitutional responsibility to fully pay for basic education and that they are relying too much on local tax-levy dollars to balance the education budget. The court gave the Legislature until the 2017-18 school year to fix the problem detailed in the lawsuit by a coalition of teachers, parents, students and community groups.

Opponents of the class size initiative think the state could find better ways to spend $2 billion than on shrinking class sizes, an idea for which researchers have given mixed reviews, saying it makes a difference for learning in younger grades but isn’t as clear a benefit in middle and high school.

Jami Lund, who works for the conservative Freedom Foundation but is advocating against the initiative as a private citizen, believes the measure would force the Legislature’s hand on the school budget and could make class size reductions one of the only education reforms that gets funded.

“The Legislature is already on track and obligated to reduce class sizes in those grades that matter the most,” Lund said. He would rather see any extra money spent on longer school days and years, more help for kids who are just learning English, support and training for teachers, better pay for teachers, and early learning.

Lund said he isn’t even convinced the initiative really would shrink class sizes because some school districts don’t have the space to add more classes, even with portables.

In addition to class size reduction, The McCleary decision is also supposed to give every kid free, all-day kindergarten; provide more instructional hours for high school students to help them earn 24 credits to graduate; fully pay for pupil transportation with state dollars; fund a new formula for school staffing levels; and offer more state support for school equipment and supplies.

Washington voters overwhelmingly approved another class size reduction initiative in 2000, and 14 years later, lawmakers are just starting to pay that bill as part of their McCleary efforts. This initiative is different, in both its scope and the way it was written.

Initiative 1351 would set lower class sizes at every grade level. The previous initiative focused on the youngest grades.

Howes says she doesn’t agree that research is mixed on the topic, but either way, she says it’s common sense that students would be more successful if teachers have time to give them individual help.

“The thing about class size is that it helps all students,” Howes said.

Class sizes are not consistent across the state because some districts can afford to hire more teachers with local levy dollars, Howes said, adding that she believes all kids deserve to have reasonable class sizes.

“What concerns me is the lack of focus on what’s right for kids. I haven’t heard anyone argue that our students should be in larger classes,” she said.