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Oct. 31, 2020

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Initiative 1351 would make class size smaller, but how?

Opponents say there's a larger picture to consider

By , Columbian Political Writer
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Battle Ground School District Superintendent Mark Hottowe can get behind the concept of smaller class sizes.

But he can’t support an initiative on the November ballot that aims to do just that — reduce the ratio between students and teachers.

“I think part of the issue is folks may understand the value of the concept, but not go to the second stage of thinking, where you ask the question: ‘Where are we going to put the additional teachers?’ ” Hottowe said.

By Evergreen School District Superintendent John Deeder’s math, if Initiative 1351 were to pass this election, his district would need to build 10 to 12 schools to meet the requirements of the measure; he believes taxpayers would have to foot the bill.

“It’s very difficult for me, or, I think, anybody who is in the education community, to talk about reducing class sizes — obviously, that’s a hot-button issue for a lot of people, especially our teachers,” Deeder said. “However, I think what people are not being told and need to be told is, first of all, most school districts of any size, like Evergreen, would have trouble getting to the class size that is mandated in Initiative 1351.”

But Mary Howes, campaign manager for the smaller class size initiative, and a former teacher and mother of four boys in Washington public schools, said she’s tired of excuses.

“I want to emphasize we’re 47th in the nation in class size. It’s really unacceptable,” Howes said. “If this (measure) is successful, we would go from being 47th to average.”

And, she contends, the measure allows for some flexibility; if a school can’t afford the capital costs associated with the initiative, they could use the funding to hire more employees who have direct contact with students.

“In a kindergarten (class) where there are 30 kids, they would have money to hire two teachers … or they might decide to hire a math specialist,” she said. “The whole goal is to get more adults with more students.”

Heart of the initiative

The heart of the initiative is to give teachers the chance to “individualize instruction, provide timely feedback to students and families, and keep students actively engaged in learning activities.”

To accomplish those goals, the measure would reduce class sizes for all grades, kindergarten through 12th grade.

The reductions would be phased in over a four-year period, prioritizing those schools with a higher rate of poor students. Class sizes for grades K-3 would shrink to 17 students; classroom sizes in higher grades would be limited to 25 students.

To pay for the class reduction, the Legislature would have to cut programs or raise taxes. The measure leaves it up to the Legislature to make those choices. If approved by voters, it would increase state expenditures by an estimated $4.7 billion through 2019, according to the Office of Fiscal Management.

Vancouver School District Superintendent Steve Webb said he’s supportive of the measure.

In addition to the state Supreme Court’s move in its McCleary decision to hold lawmakers in contempt for not adequately funding public schools, Webb said, the citizens must also “tell the Legislature to fulfill its paramount duty so that all school districts can ensure a high-quality education, including smaller class sizes, for all students.”

But a report by the Washington Research Council, which provides policy analysis, questions the evidence that says lowering class sizes produces benefits for grades fourth through 12th.

The report states the initiative would “compound the fiscal challenges already facing the 2015 Legislature. The high spending required to fund class size reductions threatens to further squeeze higher education and social services programs, jeopardize efforts at more cost-effective education reform measures, and require imposition of billions of dollars in new taxes.”

McCleary decision

Looming over the initiative is the McCleary decision. The court gave the Legislature a directive for this upcoming session to write a budget to adequately fund the state’s public schools.

To satisfy the court, lawmakers will have to tackle reduced class sizes, particularly in the lower grades, along with other education reforms.

“I believe most of us would support the idea that the McCleary decision is the highest priority for the Legislature,” Hottowe said.

The Washington State Republican Party is urging voters not to approve the measure, while the state’s Democratic Party has endorsed the initiative.

The campaign has raised about $3.4 million, backed in large part by the Washington Education Association.

Lawmakers are going to have to “fund our schools anyway,” Howes said. “This makes sure they address lower class sizes for kids.”

Jamie Lund, who has launched a campaign against the initiative, called it “clumsy and inattentive” in campaign literature and argued it would start a hiring spree for staff — but doesn’t guarantee what type of employees would be hired.

“Opposing this clunky proposal is not the same as opposing smaller class sizes,” Lund wrote. “Lawmakers are making strategic class size reductions. But $2 billion a year in education spending entirely dedicated to expanding the payroll by 25 percent will displace other meaningful improvements to the services families receive.”

Voters will decide on Nov. 4.