Every student learns the American mantra from their teachers and parents: work hard, play by the rules, and you’ll have a chance to get ahead. This month’s crop of graduating high school seniors is powerful evidence that Washington’s students do step up to their responsibilities. But we (voters and legislators alike) have defaulted on our end of the bargain.
Instead of ensuring economic opportunity for the more than 1 million children in Washington’s K-12 schools, and the 250,000 students in our state’s public colleges and universities, we’ve eroded it. Over the past three years we’ve cut $2.7 billion from K-12 education and another $1.3 billion from higher education. That’s not just money, that’s classes, counseling, arts, music, personal attention and tutoring.
Average elementary and secondary class sizes in Washington are among the 10 largest in the nation, while per-pupil spending is in the bottom five of all states. Tuition increases have also put higher education further out of reach — attending Everett Community College full-time now costs $4,000 a year. Bottlenecks are getting tighter and tighter for important programs: the University of Washington is turning away students from its computer science program, while local employers are begging for software engineers.
Why is this happening? It’s not like we live in a poor state. The state’s economy is growing at more than $10 billion a year. In the Seattle metro area alone there are almost 1,000 people who each own $30 million or more in assets. There are about 225,000 millionaires — those with assets greater than $1 million — in our state. Companies like Amazon are booming. Boeing is building more planes in Everett.
It’s happening because of Tim Eyman’s Initiative 1053. By requiring a two-thirds supermajority vote in the Legislature to close tax loopholes or otherwise increase revenue, the measures effectively give veto power to just 17 of the state’s 49 senators. So when the Great Recession hit, we didn’t require the wealthy few to pay back a little more of what they’ve gained by living here. We didn’t end tax loopholes that make small businesses pay almost twice as much proportionally in taxes than the elite corporations.
Instead, the status quo position was — and still is — to starve, disable and shrink public services we all depend on to make economic opportunity a reality for everyone. That sets the stage for further cuts, because economic growth depends on having a good transportation system, investments in higher education, high-quality K-12 education, and a healthy workforce.
It’s more than a little ironic that the architect of I-1053, Eyman, is a Washington State University alum. His tuition at WSU in 1998 was just $3,366 in today’s dollars. This August, thanks to his initiatives, a student entering WSU will pay $12,300 — almost four times what Eyman’s education cost.
The doors of economic opportunity may yet reopen. The Washington Education Association and the League of Education Voters, as well as several legislators including Rep. Cindy Ryu, D-Shoreline, and Mike Sells, D-Everett, sued the state to challenge the constitutionality of I-1053. Last week King County Superior Court Judge Bruce Heller ruled in their favor, throwing out I-1053, and declaring the supermajority requirement unconstitutional.
He’s right. I-1053 put a dagger into the heart of representative democracy. A democracy, remember, enables lawmaking and votes in which the will of the majority prevails. I-1053 stood this on its head, whereby the will of a distinct and very small minority prevails.
Washington’s Constitution states, “No bill shall become a law unless … a majority of the members elected to each house be recorded … voting in its favor.” A majority means 50 percent plus one, plain and simple. There are specific places where the Constitution’s framers require a supermajority vote — such as a two-thirds vote to override a governor’s veto — but this isn’t one of them.
Heller’s ruling will enable lawmaking and voting in which the will of the majority once again prevails. Without I-1053, legislators get back all of their rightful constitutional tools for budgeting and policy making. Then it will be up to the voters to ensure they use those tools to create economic opportunity and progress in our state by investing in K-12 education, higher education, health care, and job creation.
John Burbank is executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute (www.eoionline.org). His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.