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New state budget averts govt shutdown, but ignores voter mandate to reduce class sizes

Photo: Rachel Samanyi/Flickr Creative Commons

Washington State Capitol. (Photo: Rachel Samanyi/Flickr Creative Commons)

Last week, Washington legislators and the Governor managed to pass a state budget and avert a government shutdown. The new budget boosts K-12 funding just enough to maybe hit this year’s target set by the state Supreme Court in the McCleary decision.

But the Legislature failed to achieve a long term plan for amply funding public education for all children. The new budget also fails to fund the Washington Class Size Reduction Initiative 1351, which was passed by the people of the state just seven months ago.

I-1351 directs the legislature to allocate funding for smaller K-12 class sizes, with extra class-size reductions in high-poverty schools, and for increased student support staffing, including counselors. Increased funding for these changes would be phased in over four years. This would require an expenditure of about $700 million in the next fiscal year.

But the budget just signed into law doesn’t fund smaller class sizes for kids in high poverty schools, or for kids in fourth through eighth grade and high school.

We’re told by “responsible people” this is all because it’s too expensive. Well, guess what? Education is expensive. The opinion leaders at the Seattle Times complain that Initiative 1351 will just result in increased numbers of teachers. I guess they think that robots would do better at teaching our kids than actual human beings. Of course Initiative 1351 will result in more teachers – that is how class size reductions happen.

Washington has one of the highest class sizes in the country. We’re 45th among the states in spending on K-12, relative to our wealth as a state.

Initiative 1351 is not gutted yet. It takes a two-thirds majority of each house in the legislature to amend, delay, or repeal an initiative. The House passed a four year delay last week by a vote of 72 to 26. But the Senate, thanks to some Democrats who said, “not so fast”, failed to orchestrate a two-thirds vote.

Earlier this year, House Democrats and the Governor proposed increasing revenue by ending some special tax breaks and adding a tax on the very wealthy through a limited capital gains tax. But the Republican-controlled Senate held firm against any new revenue, forcing the legislature into triple overtime. They finally agreed to close a few modest tax breaks in the final budget deal.

But even if the legislature had agreed to both the capital gains tax and closing more special business tax breaks, Washington still would not have enough to amply fund K-12 equitably for all kids across the state – including the full class-size reductions required by I-1351 – while also expanding access to early learning, assuring that children, elderly, and other vulnerable people have the supports and protections they need to be safe and lead full lives, and returning to the tuition levels for higher education that we had before the great recession.

Washington has a broken tax structure that does not require the wealthy and prosperous to pay their fair share. That’s why we we have lower levels of K-12 spending than Mississippi, Alabama, North Dakota and 41 other states. Until we get serious about addressing that fundamental problem of a broken tax structure, we won’t be able to provide our kids with the great education system and lifetime of opportunity that they deserve.

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