School funding staged a surprising comeback in Washington state’s 2005 legislative session, considering that just last fall, voters resoundingly rejected a ballot initiative that sought new money to pay for a raft of education improvements.
By many accounts, the chief flaw of Initiative 884 was its revenue source: an increase of one penny on the dollar, or 15.4 percent, in the state sales tax that citizens found unpalatable, and that the Democratic and Republican candidates for governor in the November election both opposed. (“Education Issues Are Dominant Theme in Washington State,” Oct. 13, 2004.)
But on May 17, Gov. Christine Gregoire, who beat out Republican Dino Rossi by a razor-thin and still-disputed margin, signed a two-year, $26 billion state budget that provides new money for many of I-884’s proposals, such as reducing class sizes in public schools and giving teachers annual cost-of-living adjustments. Voters approved those items in separate initiatives in 2000, but the legislature and then-Gov. Gary Locke stopped funding for them in 2003.
The budget for fiscal years 2006 and 2007 also pays for increases in enrollment at state colleges and universities by 7,900 new students, and expands health care to an additional 40,000 children statewide.
“Investing in education, more health care for children, and a strong economy are the ingredients for a better future for Washington state,” Gov. Gregoire said at the budget signing.
The budget, which takes effect July 1, avoids a general tax increase by making $850 million in spending cuts and funding shifts, and by raising $385 million in new revenue from a partial restoration of the estate tax and new taxes on cigarettes.
Lisa Macfarlane, the president of the state’s League of Education Voters, the grassroots organization that led the I-884 campaign, said it turned out that the measure, though a failure at the polls, “brought more focus to the issue of education reform and funding.”
In particular, she said, it influenced lawmakers, including the Democratic governor, to link state spending on preschool, K-12, and higher education. The Senate, for example, reorganized its higher education and K-12 committees into a single P-16 committee covering preschool through college.
And Ms. Gregoire’s proposal for an 18-month state education finance study, which the legislature adopted, will tackle the same P-16 span.
Teacher unionists hailed the legislative session, and not just for the teacher raises, of 1.2 percent in 2006 and 1.7 percent in 2007. “It was a session that took steps in the right direction for first time in a long while,” said Charles Hasse, the president of the Washington Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association.
“We were also surprised that the class-size initiative was re-created,” as well as increased funding for special education and “significant new money for the learning-assistance program,” he said.
He credited Gov. Gregoire for the outcome, saying: “She’s overdelivered on her promises.”
Reducing class sizes is the most visible purpose of Initiative 728, one of the ballot measures passed in 2000. Other goals include supporting after-school programs, teacher training, and facility construction. The initiative says its funding is to come from lottery proceeds, existing property taxes, and budget reserves, which have not produced adequate revenues in recent years.
By earmarking the new taxes for I-728 after the defeat of I-884, lawmakers are “not listening to voters,” said Marsha Richards, an education policy analyst at the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a think tank in Olympia, the state capital.
The state’s learning-assistance program is designed to help districts improve services to underachieving students.
Some observers say the level of action was surprising not only because of the back seat education took in the gubernatorial campaign, but also because Ms. Gregoire still faces a legal challenge to her election.
Her victory is being challenged in court by the state Republican Party, specifically over alleged irregularities in the counting of absentee ballots in King County. A trial in the case was scheduled to start May 23 in the Chelan County Superior Court. One possible outcome is that the election could be overturned and a new one held.
Nonetheless, Ms. Gregoire, who previously was the state attorney general, has acted like the uncontested owner of the governor’s seat, and has enjoyed Democratic control of the legislature.
Charter Issue Eclipsed
Two other issues that were loudly debated last fall were notable for their low profiles in the state capital this year.
No charter school bill was introduced in the legislature, reflecting the failure in November of a voter referendum, R-55, which sought to unblock a state law allowing charter schools. The other issue around which the recent silence was noticeable was the looming requirement that 10th graders pass the state’s academic assessments beginning in 2006 to graduate from high school in 2008.
The issue was hotly debated last fall between state Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson, who backed the requirement, and challenger Judith Billings, a former state schools chief who opposed it.