Small class sizes in our schools sound like a good idea to us and to the hundreds of thousands of Washingtonians who signed a petition to get Initiative 1351 on the ballot.
Before voting, however, people need to look beyond the feel-good sound bites.
If you research I-1351 you will find lots of numbers: numbers about how many kids are in an average class size in Washington, numbers that rank us with the rest of the nation, numbers on how many more teachers we need to hire.
You will not, however, find numbers on how much I-1351 will cost.
According to the official fiscal impact statement by the Washington Office of Financial Management: “Initiative 1351 will not increase or decrease state revenues. State expenditures will increase — through distributions to local school districts — by an estimated $4.7 billion through 2019 based on changes to the statutory funding formulas for K-12 class sizes and staffing levels, and through increases in state levy equalization payments directed by current law.
“Under current law, I-1351 will increase school districts’ authority to levy additional property taxes. It is unknown if districts would exercise this authority, but it could generate up to an estimated $1.9 billion in additional local revenues through 2019.”
The basic argument of I-1351 is that students do better when they have more caring adults in their lives and better learning happens in smaller settings, especially in the early grades. That sounds about right, although some studies disagree. Proponents say Washington is 47th in class size. This initiative would bring us into range of average with the rest of the nation.
But there is a cost in both increased budget and lost opportunities.
The state Supreme Court has mandated the state Legislature fix education in Washington.
The 2012 McCleary decision requires lawmakers follow a model of a prototypical school that the Legislature designed. One of the elements in that model is class size, among many others.
This initiative forces that issue to the top and will essentially bust the bank on meeting any other requirements.
Some officials are calling the initiative a “budget buster.” It adds 15,000 new teachers to the state’s payroll and, more importantly in our minds, it closes the door on any other fixes.
When we asked I-1351 backers where the money to fund this would come from, they essentially said that is for the Legislature to figure out.
If that’s the case, we say let the Legislature figure out how to meet the McCleary decision, including class-size issues.
The initiative process in Washington allows voters to enact laws without having to provide a way to pay for them. It’s the funding black hole that forces us to say no to 1351.