Politics & Government

Can lawmakers alter class-size mandate to avoid massive budget shortfall?

Washington voters delivered a ticking financial bomb to the Legislature just in time for the 2015 session.

Initiative 1351, which voters narrowly approved in November, changes state law on student-to-teacher ratios in K-12 public schools, and calls for a major $2 billion investment in lowering those ratios over the next two years.

One problem: I-1351 came with no new money, and lawmakers were already looking at a budget that, based on estimates from Gov. Jay Inslee’s budget office, is $2 billion in the red despite rising revenues.

If lawmakers returning for a 105-day session that begins Jan. 12 want to avoid adding to an already sizable budget shortfall, they’ll need to muster extraordinary support for putting the initiative on hold. Under state law, lawmakers need two-thirds majorities to suspend or amend citizen initiatives during the first two years after voters approve them.

But before they start counting votes, legislators must first consider whether they can change I-1351 without running afoul of the judiciary.

The state is already obligated to reduce class sizes in lower grades under the state Supreme Court’s ruling in the case known as the McCleary decision.

I-1351 goes much further, demanding reductions in student-to-teacher ratios across all grades. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn thinks the cost of meeting McCleary obligations and I-1351 is at least $4.5 billion and actually closer to $7.2 billion for the 2015-17 budget.

The Washington Education Association, which sponsored and financed I-1351, contends that in approving the ballot measure voters changed what is considered basic education in a way that lawmakers can’t alter without offending a high court that is demanding the state fully fund basic education.

“It’s clear that reasonable class size is part of basic education,” said Rich Wood, spokesman for the WEA. “They can come up with more excuses for not funding basic education for our kids. The voters have spoken; the Constitution is clear. Now it’s time to fund the education guaranteed in the Constitution. Smaller class sizes are part of that.”

Lawmakers may be hesitant to do anything that would provoke the court, which held the state in contempt for the Legislature’s failure to produce a plan for achieving full funding of education by 2017-18.

But legislators aren’t yet convinced that funding I-1351 is part of their McCleary obligations.

“We’re delving into that now,” House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said last week. “If it is part of basic education, we have to be thoughtful in how we treat it. We can amend the basic education (definition) as long as there is an educational rationale to do it.”

“The court’s been clear you can’t amend the basic education act for budget reasons,” Sullivan added.

Republicans who control the Senate through the Majority Coalition Caucus insist I-1351 can be changed or suspended. Republican Sen. John Braun of Centralia, who is vice chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said the initiative is simply unaffordable and invests money in class size reductions at grade levels where they don’t produce big enough returns.

Braun thinks lawmakers can make improvements to K-12 spending that meet the court’s requirements without raising taxes in a year the state will see almost $3 billion in new revenue. Adding I-1351 would mean deep cuts to social programs, Braun argues.

“Eventually everyone is going to have to realize the options are not great,” Braun said. “That’s a discussion that we’re going to hold pretty soon.”

Inslee has proposed spending about $400 million for smaller class sizes in K-3 grades, which would move the state toward meeting the original McCleary decision but would not fully fund I-1351’s across-the-board reductions.

Braun agrees with focusing on the lower grades. He said research shows good return on investments in early education including kindergarten and first grade, but diminishing returns after that. A key for Braun is putting money into schools in ways that produce the biggest benefit, which for him is in the lowest grades.

Wood disagreed with Braun’s arguments on smaller class sizes. Wood acknowledged that there is less return on investment in higher grades but contended smaller class sizes benefit learning at all grades.

“It’s just incredible that legislators would make overturning the will of the voters more of a priority than investing in the education that our children deserve. That would be really sad,” Wood said. “One of the reasons voters approved this is because the Legislature had neglected to fund basic education, including smaller class sizes. The voters passed this law.”