November 4, 2004
It's Back to the Drawing Board for Education Backers
Initiative's Defeat Means Other Sources of Money Must Be Explored, Observers Say
By HEATHER WOODWARD, The Olympian
Rejection of Initiative 884 could spell tough times ahead for educators now counting on Washington lawmakers to carve out more state money for public schools. I-884, which called for a 1 cent sales tax increase, would have funneled an additional $1 billion annually into education. The money was intended to help schools work to meet tough state and federal academic standards.
But its overwhelming failure could make legislators less likely to support increased spending on education since voters decided against providing a new source of funding from which to draw, lawmakers said Wednesday.
"I think it will be extremely difficult to find majority support for additional funding for education," said Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia. "I'd like to see us explore ways to provide additional funds for education . . . but I think it will be really difficult to get there."
The measure's defeat also isn't expected to renew support for previous voter-approved initiatives 728 and 732—aimed at class-size reductions and cost-of-living pay increases for teachers, respectively—which were suspended by the Legislature last year.
"I think most legislators feel that teachers, particularly good teachers, should be paid more," said Sen. Stephen Johnson, chairman of the Senate Education Committee. "At the same time, we have the people saying emphatically we don't want to do that with new tax dollars."
If I-884 had passed, the Olympia School District would have received an estimated $2.95 million a year in new funding, according to Citizens for the Education Trust Fund, a campaign that supported the measure. Tumwater schools would have received $2.3 million, and North Thurston Public Schools could have expected about $5 million in new money.
The funding could have translated into smaller classes. "I know well as a teacher that if I have five or 10 fewer students, it makes a huge difference with what I can do with kids," said Duncan Clarke, a Washington Middle School teacher, who added that smaller classes have an effect on teachers as well as students. "If you're dealing with teachers who are always on the verge of a meltdown because of workload, that's not a good thing."
However, South Sound school district officials said they hadn't drawn up plans for how to use the additional money. "It (the measure's defeat) basically means carrying on with the basic resource levels that we've got," said Jim Crawford, the Olympia School District's assistant superintendent for business and support services. "We were not counting on that money coming in."
Tumwater School District Superintendent Terry Borden said he wasn't counting on the money either. However, he said he was disappointed the initiative failed because the funding could have paid for more programs aimed at reading and math, possibly by hiring more teachers and offering more after-school programs.
"The amount of money would have been substantial and could have paid for lots of things to help provide an even stronger basic education for our children," Borden said.
I-884 wasn't the only failed education measure on the ballot Tuesday. Referendum 55 would have allowed the creation of 45 new charter schools statewide in the next six years. Charter schools are privately run schools that receive public funding.
Supporters think charter schools could have helped reduce the high school dropout rate, which hovers at 30 percent and at almost 50 percent among minority students.
Opponents fear charter schools would drain funding from existing public schools and wouldn't face strict oversight.
The vote Tuesday marked the third time in a decade that Washington voters have rejected charter schools. But supporters say the measure's defeat doesn't mean voters necessarily have heard the last of the issue.
"There could be another opportunity in the future if the regular system is not able to solve the dropout crisis," said Jim Spady, president of the Washington Charter School Resource Center. "It may be before voters again, or it could be something that the Legislature takes up."
Heather Woodward covers education for The Olympian. She can be reached at 360-754-4225 or hwoodward@ olympia.gannett.com.
©2004 The Olympian
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