Voters should reject I-732

By ELAINE R. DAVIS

For more than a decade, significant momentum has built behind a statewide goal of increasing student learning. Politicians of both major political parties, business and labor, parents and educators have united to establish learning standards, improve pay for teachers, increase student-teacher ratios, invest in education technology, and strengthen accountability.

And in Initiative 732 we get the response of the teachers’ union: They want a guaranteed annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA).

Where innovation and creativity are called for, the union wants across-the-board pay hikes, regardless of job performance or the health of the state economy.

Certainly, every thoughtful observer of public school education recognizes we face serious personnel problems in our public schools. And a variety of workable proposals have been offered: bonuses for achieving national accreditation, merit pay systems that pay higher salaries to exemplary educators, extra pay for teachers skilled in high demand disciplines, like mathematics and computer science, and more.

Each of these proposals represents a targeted, specific response to the primary challenge facing our public schools: attracting and retaining the best teachers for our children.

Initiative 732 represents the status quo. Just give everybody in the school district – from the lowest paid cafeteria worker to the highest-paid superintendent – a bump for inflation each year. Not only does it fail to make the system appreciably better, it creates a whole new set of problems.

Consider the initiative carefully. Under I-732 all K-12 school employees, community and technical college faculty (not administration), and technical college classified employees would receive an annual COLA based on the Seattle-area consumer price index ,

First, in singling out a group of employees for special treatment in the state budget, it is remarkably unfair and arbitrary. School cafeteria workers will get a COLA; cafeteria workers in other institutions will not. School custodians will; those who clean state office buildings will not. School superintendents, who negotiate often-handsome salary packages, will receive an automatic COLA; child protective service workers and prison guards will not.

There’s no equity in this approach, and little logic.

Second, the initiative expands the constitutional definition of basic education, making funding the COLA for all K-12 employees — including coaches and custodians — among the "paramount" duties of the state. Compensation decisions are among the most important responsibilities of any employer, largely because they shape the caliber, commitment and future development of the workforce. Given what we as a state are trying to accomplish in education reform, it simply makes no sense to tie the hands of the Legislature with respect to this fundamental management prerogative.

Third, while the COLA will produce a relatively small salary bump for most employees — as long as inflation remains low — the cost to the state is substantial, about $412 million in the coming biennium, according to state budget analysts, or about one-third of all new spending permitted under the voter-approved spending limit, Initiative 601. Rather than being targeted to areas where it could be used most effectively, the money is dissipated. At once, it’s too little and too much.

Fourth, this will satisfy no one. Public employees not covered by I-732 will claim they have been unfairly neglected, and demand a COLA for themselves. Education employees will argue that the COLA simply preserves their buying power, and demand higher wages on top of the higher base. And many hardworking taxpayers, the majority of whom are in small businesses that continue to struggle in the shadow of the technology boom, will wonder why they are once again left paying other people’s bills. Why must they pay to provide public employees a benefit they do not themselves receive?

Finally, the initiative is technically flawed, using a measure of inflation that the federal government says should not be used. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, which calculates the inflation index, cautions that local indexes are volatile and subject to greater error. Lately, the Seattle CPI has run higher than the national average, and surely overestimates the cost of living outside the metropolitan area.

No one disagrees with the objective. Teachers should be compensated fairly. I-732, rather than advancing the cause, sets it back. A sound step toward real education reform and responsible compensation will be taken when the voters reject this costly and unfair proposal.

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