State lawmakers trying to work through I-1351 issues

Five months ago voters said they wanted smaller classes in Washington public schools.

Seven months from now, lawmakers want to ask them, “Did you really mean it?”

In November, the electorate passed Initiative 1351 requiring fewer students in classes at every grade level in every school in every district in the state.

The measure contained no “ifs,” “buts” or “maybes,” just a directive to get it done in four years.

It also contained no means of paying for the additional teachers and staff and classrooms needed to meet the demands created by the mandate. The price tag, for those who read the voter’s pamphlet, is roughly $4.7 billion over the next four years.

This week House and Senate budget writers said the state can’t afford I-1351 and want a reprieve from the bulk of its requirements.

They said taxpayer dollars should be spent on shrinking class sizes in kindergarten through third grade, where research shows students benefit the most, and is required of the state under a mandate from the Supreme Court.

House Democrats and Senate Republicans follow that blueprint in their respective budgets issued this week and want voters to endorse their approach this November. Leaders in the chambers are now tasked with figuring out exactly how to accomplish that.

Senate Republicans want to ask voters to support amending the original initiative to cover those four grades. House Democrats are toying with something a little more complex, linking a revised initiative with other education-related costs.

With the intention of lawmakers now clear, the question is will the Washington Education Association and its 84,000 members — mostly public school teachers — fight them.

Initiative 1351 is their handiwork. The WEA wrote it and the statewide teachers’ union, along with its locals and the National Education Association spent $5 million getting it on the ballot and passed.

However, the final result — 51 percent to 49 percent — and the margin of victory — 40,000 votes out of nearly 2.1 million cast — indicates voters were split on the measure.

Lawmakers in both parties think voters will understand the cost of the initiative this November. They also want to avoid an expensive ballot battle with teachers. Neither political party is in the mood to spend millions of dollars in a campaign — especially not the Democratic Party with whom the union is traditionally aligned.

Lawmakers hope putting billions of additional dollars into schools, including the first state-funded pay hikes for teachers in years, will help avoid a clash. It would help if Senate Republicans stop pursuing a bill detested by teachers that would require student test scores be used to evaluate their performance.

These steps won’t buy the union’s silence or acquiescence in the legislative endeavor but they might keep its campaign coffers closed this fall.

Going back to the ballot is not without its risks – even if there’s no opposition.

If voters stick by their original decision, lawmakers would need to regroup and come up with the billions of dollars through spending cuts, higher taxes or both.

It’s a vexing challenge now and will be no less vexing later.

That’s why they want to ask voters if they really meant what they said.

Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com. Contact him at 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com and on Twitter at @dospueblos.

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