Education issues go to the people

By ERIC STEVICK

Herald Writer

Every registered voter gets them — the glossy direct mailings featuring candidates reading to young children with a brief statement filled with glittering generalities about their concern for education.

Everyone, it seems, has a deep-rooted commitment to improve classrooms.

The presidential candidates say they do. So do hopefuls for Congress and the Legislature. This year, through the initiative process, parents and teachers are putting forth their own agendas.

All of which can be confusing to folks with kids in school who may not know where to call with a concern. Is it the teacher, principal, superintendent, school board member, legislator, governor, congressman, senator or the president?

Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush offer platforms that would expand the role federal government plays in kindergarten through high school. Both support states setting high academic standards, giving rigorous tests to measure how students are faring and holding schools accountable for results.

Yet education remains largely a state and local issue. Consider, during the 1998-99 school year, about 7 percent of all school district operating revenues in Washington came from the federal government.

"I rather flippantly made the remark that the candidates running for president sound more like candidates running for school board," said Judy Hedden, president of the League of Women’s Voters for Snohomish County.

About 74 percent of all school district money came from the state and about 19 percent came from local sources last year, according to the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

What’s unusual in Tuesday’s election is the number of issues that will be decided by the electorate instead of the Legislature. Between 1922 and 1996, just six education-related statewide initiatives reached the ballot, according to the secretary of state’s records. On Tuesday, there will be three.

For many candidates, the ballot measures can be tough topics, as their comments in a grid box on Page 4A indicate. The measures are:

  • Initiative 728, which would take a portion of state property taxes that would otherwise go into the state general fund and return the money to local school districts as a "student achievement fund."

    The districts could use the money for a number of things: smaller class sizes, teacher training, prekindergarten or extended learning programs such as after-school tutoring or longer school years.

    The initiative would also take all the lottery money that isn’t already specified for sports stadiums and dedicate it to the student achievement fund and to school construction.

  • Initiative 729, which would allow 20 publicly paid, independently run charter schools a year over the next four years.

  • Initiative 732, which would provide annual cost-of-living increases for all employees of public schools and some two-year colleges.

    "I think that the three education-based initiatives that we have on the ballot are ones that you could see either party vote on either side of the issue because there are so many implications," Hedden said.

    At speaking engagements for three different organizations, Jeannette Wood, a former state senator from Woodway, learned firsthand last month that voters, with or without children in schools, have strong feelings about education issues.

    People are vested in what happens in the classroom. They pay attention to test scores and tax statements and issues such as class size and school choice, Wood said.

    Case in point: Wood participated in a debate about charter schools at the Lynnwood Senior Center. The forum’s agenda also included initiatives dealing with property taxes and transportation, issues that might have more of a direct effect on the lives of seniors, but charter schools prompted as many questions and statements as the other initiatives.

    "I think the senior citizens are really concerned about how their grandkids are going to fit into the picture of education," Wood said.

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