There are a lot of no-brainers on the ballot this year—funding for buses (YES on Prop. 1), a gun control measure (YES on I-594/NO on I-591), excellent state legislators up for re-election such as Reps. Reuven Carlyle (D-36, Queen Anne), Jessyn Farrell (D-46, N. Seattle), Brady Walkinshaw (D-43, Capitol Hill), State Sen. David Frockt (D-46, N. Seattle), and a newcomer, southeast Seattle senate candidate Pramila Jayapal in the 37th.
One statewide ballot initiative, though, I-1351, a mandate for smaller class sizes, is not as clear cut, so we had pro and con reps on the measure come in to Seattle Met's offices last week to help us figure out how to vote.
I-1351 would limit grades K-3 to 17 students per class and limit grades 4-12 to 25 students per class. In high-poverty schools, those numbers drop to 15 and 23 respectively (with 22 students in the fourth grade). Currently, the average class size in Washington state is about 24 students in elementary school and 30 per class in high school. Bottom line: I-1351 mandates hiring more teachers. The initiative also calls for increased support staff.
With the Washington State Supreme Court McCleary mandate in the mix—a court order to fund basic education which amounts to $5 billion in additional K-12 funding in the next three years (on top of the approximately $15 billion per biennium the state already spends)—we're cautious about adding more strain on the state budget. The fiscal note from the Office of Financial Management puts I-1351 costs at $4.7 billion through 2019, though with the overlap in the McCleary mandate, which includes shrinking K-3 classes already, the cost is more like $4 billion. So, adding 1351 costs to McCleary would put the legislature on the hook for about $9 billion extra between now and 2019.
The legislature should not be forced into making a costly, debatable policy decision particularly when it could force them to make drastic cuts to other budget line items—suh as housing for 30,000 homeless kids, food assistance, health care, and early learning—that would actually undermine school children.
Going forward from the 2017-2019 biennium: McCleary will cost about $4.5 billion a biennium according to the bipartisan Joint Task Force on Education Funding and I-1351 would cost about $3.8 billion according to OFM.
The proponents for 1351—liberal state Sen. Marko Liias (D-21, Edmonds, Everett, Lynnwood, and Mukilteo) made the case to our board—told us that a mandate from the people on class size could reconfigure the McCleary equation by making class size a priority while other McCleary costs such as Materials Supplies and Operation Costs (MSOCs) could be deprioritized. And so, the current $5 billion could be lower. However, he conceded that, yes, I-1351 would certainly add costs.
Sen. Liias also conceded this—something he had to concede because the state's own research arm, the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, found the same thing: the research is mixed on whether smaller class sizes actually improve student learning, particularly in the higher grades.
Those findings, replicated by studies from Brookings and Stanford University that the opponents pointed out to us, underscore the fundamental concern we have with I-1351: We are uncomfortable with micromanagement from voters statewide on education policy questions that turn into top-down mandates.
We are also uncomfortable with unfunded mandates. I-1351—at least $4 billion in new costs—does not come with a funding source.
With limited resources, the legislature should not be forced into making a costly, debatable policy decision particularly when it could also force them to make drastic cuts to other budget line items—such as housing for 30,000 homeless kids, food assistance, health care, and early learning—that would actually undermine school children. This is precisely why the progressive Children's Alliance actually came out against I-1351. We agree with state's leading children's advocates who also contend that the real problem with the state's education system is the achievement gap for poor and minority students, something I-1351 does nothing specifically to address.
PubliCola Picks No on I-1351
Yesterday, we recommended voting Yes on Prop 1B, the property tax measure to fund preschool education.