Vote would let districts, schools use funds the way they want

By ERIC STEVICK

Herald Writer

It was born out of frustration, with education advocates searching for ways to reduce class sizes, increase teacher training, build classrooms and add learning time for struggling students.

For schools like English Crossing Elementary in Lakewood, Initiative 728 could provide some of that relief.

Consider the challenge faced by the school’s music teacher who received a grant that, among other things, provided 15 high-tech Yamaha keyboards.

Problem is, the music room has been converted into a general classroom because of overcrowding at the school, meaning she will have to figure out how to roll the pricey equipment down the halls over several trips and hook each one up each time they are used.

"We are still working on how we are going to get them from room to room," said Graham Cook, the school’s principal.

Under Initiative 728, school districts would be able to decide how to meet needs of their communities and individual schools — be it adequate teaching space for keyboards or cutting the ratio of 28 students per teacher that now exists in some classrooms at English Crossing.

The initiative, which would dramatically change the way the state spends money on schools, is seen as a boon by education supporters and porous fiscal policy by some financial analysts.

I-728 would amend Initiative 601, the 1993 law that sets spending limits, earmark state property tax and lottery revenues and create a new Student Achievement Fund. It wouldn’t increase taxes but it could reduce the chances of future property tax cuts.

Specifically, I-728 gives school districts money and flexibility to:

  • Reduce class sizes in kindergarten through fourth grade with selected reductions in some classes, such as writing, in higher grades. Washington has the nation’s third highest student-to-teacher ratio.

  • Provide more learning opportunities, such as all-day kindergarten, after-school classes, tutoring and summer school,

  • Increase training for teachers,

  • Provide early assistance for children who need prekindergarten help.

    The initiative also provides a new funding stream for kindergarten through 12th grade and higher education school construction.

    Needs vary from district to district and even from school to school, I-728 supporters argue. The initiative gives more local control.

    "The beauty of this initiative is it really focuses on community control of the funds that come in," said Mari Taylor, a Lake Stevens School Board member who was part of the statewide grass-roots group that came up with I-728.

    Although there is no organized opposition campaign, I-728 does have its critics, including the Washington Research Council, a nonpartisan, public policy research organization that examines issues on behalf of businesses.

    "The initiative violates several important fiscal policy principles and would reduce the prospects of future relief from the state property tax," the research council concluded.

    I-728 would also weaken the legislative budget process by earmarking money that would otherwise go into the general fund, according to the research council.

    "Diverting property tax revenues to a new general fund account is simply an attempt to skirt the provisions of Initiative 601," said the research council report.

    Lisa Macfarlane, a I-728 organizer with two children in Seattle schools, points to the state constitution, which says it is "the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children." The initiative helps ensure the state is living up to its constitutional obligations, she said.

    Macfarlane also looks at the higher expectations the state is placing on the schools through higher academic standards and rigorous exams taken by fourth-, seventh- and 10th graders.

    "We are in a time and a place where districts all have their feet to the fire," she said. "It’s going to be a train wreck if you don’t give them the resources to get there."

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