Wash. Initiative Would Skirt Spending Limits

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If Washington state citizens vote on Nov. 7 to approve Initiative 728—as is widely expected—a reasonable symbol for the accomplishment might be the nozzle of a gas pump.

The symbol is apt because the measure would pump an estimated $1.5 billion over the next five years into local school systems' efforts to lower class sizes, train teachers, and provide "extended learning" opportunities, such as after- school and preschool programs. That would reverse a seven-year trend toward declining per-pupil spending by the state on its schools.

The gas nozzle would also make a good badge for Lisa D. Macfarlane, one of the leaders of the I-728 campaign.

Ms. Macfarlane, a 43-year-old former public defender and a parent of two children in the Seattle public schools, had been a garden-variety school volunteer until the day in February 1996 when two local elections to approve school property-tax levies in the city fell just short of the 60 percent supermajority required to pass such measures.

The next morning, Ms. Macfarlane had an "epiphany" while filling up her Subaru with gas. With her mind seething over the levy failure, she remembered that the state legislature had anted up the money to build Seattle's professional-football stadium after the stadium levy failed with just 49 percent of the vote the previous November.

"I saw red, and drove away and ripped the hose off the pump," a move that cost her a $25 fine, she recalled recently.

Ms. Macfarlane took a leave of absence from her job as an AmeriCorps trainer and began campaigning full time to win a rerun of the Seattle levy seven weeks later. That time around, the measure passed with 70 percent of the vote.

Despite that success, she became convinced, as she met levy campaigners elsewhere in the state, that levy elections were too tenuous for districts to rely on. The solution, she decided, was to find more state support.

"Lisa has always said, 'Failure is not an option,' and she says it with conviction, which has basically helped a lot," said Russ Hartman, a member of the Bremerton school board who has worked with her to put together I-728.

Their campaign came in an auspicious year, because all three education initiatives on the ballot—out of a total of 37 initiatives—are expected to pass. The other two are Initiative 729, authorizing publicly funded charter schools, and Initiative 732, guaranteeing teachers annual cost-of-living raises. But of the three proposed laws, the broadest support seems to be for Initiative 728, which has been endorsed by Gov. Gary Locke, state schools Superintendent Terry Bergeson, the state PTA, and the state affiliate of the National Education Association. The Seattle Chamber of Commerce also backs the measure.

One of the most popular features of the measure is the way it would release funding from the constraints of another voter initiative, I-601, that voters passed seven years ago.

That law limits the state budget's overall spending growth each year to the rate of the general population increase plus the increase in the cost of living. Only a two-thirds vote by the legislature can lift the spending cap, which has happened only once, for transportation spending, in 1996.

Circumventing the Cap

Since 1993, the state has seen its revenues expand dramatically, but despite regular budget surpluses, state per-pupil funding of schools has declined in real terms. I-728 would have the state government return a portion of surplus revenue from the state property tax to school districts each year, with the amount equalized across the state on a per-pupil basis. It would also set aside state lottery revenues for school programs and construction. The return to districts would start at $275 per student and rise over time to $450 per student.

The maneuver would circumvent I-601 because the money would never enter the state budget, so the cap would not apply.

It was a tactic figured out by Gov. Locke, a Democrat, who offered it to the legislature last winter. The bill was rejected, but the idea resurfaced in I-728.

Ms. Macfarlane, one of the two volunteer leaders of the group K-12 2000, which drafted the initiative and collected 297,000 signatures to get it on the ballot, said that tapping the state surplus was an irresistible opportunity. "We've got a ton of surplus money," she said.

Meanwhile, other voter initiatives that would shrink the surplus—such as one this year to eliminate the car-registration tax—have made perennial appearances on the ballot.

"What's become clear to us," Ms. Macfarlane said, "is that if we are not on the ballot with something positive, this money is going to get lost forever."

The campaign for I-728 was born after members of citizen committees that ran school levy campaigns around the state began comparing notes, culminating in a decision to pursue an initiative at a meeting in June of last year. Ideas for the proposal were then solicited at meetings across the state, and fiscal experts were recruited to craft the language.

Ms. Macfarlane said the prospects for I-728 are good because citizens have renewed confidence in the accountability of their public schools, partly because of new statewide academic standards and assessments. The initiative's supporters say it is needed to enable students to meet those new demands.

Although no groups have formally opposed the initiative, it does have critics.

Lynn A. Harsh, the executive director of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, based in Olympia, argues that the measure is too vague about how schools are permitted to use the money. "The money will be sent to local schools, and the school boards will spend it on what they want," she said.

When she looks at I-728's organizers, Ms. Harsh said she sees the state education lobby's usual suspects—school principals, superintendents, and teachers' unions—who have been working together for years.

"It's not a true grassroots effort," said Ms. Harsh, whose group has not taken a formal position on I-728.

Still, she added, "I'd be remiss not to say there are lots of good citizens who are involved."

Vol. 20, Issue 5, Pages 18, 21

Published in Print: October 4, 2000, as Wash. Initiative Would Skirt Spending Limits
Related Stories
Web Resources
  • The full text of Initiative 728 is available from Vote 2000, which provides information for elections in Washington.
  • Why We Need I-728, from K-12 2000 answers questions about the initiative, lists research to support the initiative, and includes a background on Washington State funding.
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