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Originally published Monday, October 6, 2014 at 4:53 PM

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Editorial: Initiative 1351 is the wrong tool to reduce class sizes

Voters should reject Initiative 1351, which would add billions more in education spending at a time when the state must focus on funding the Supreme Court’s McCleary decision on basic education.

Seattle Times Editorial

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ON the surface, Initiative 1351 appears appealing, promising smaller classes in Washington public schools. But what it really does is unnecessarily complicate the state Legislature’s very serious job of meeting a state Supreme Court order to fully fund basic education.

Voters should reject I-1351.

Backed by the Washington Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, the initiative calls for limits on class sizes from kindergarten through high school — thus, more classrooms and staff members would be needed to meet that requirement. It provides no source of funding for this generous expenditure, though sponsors say it would cost an additional $1 billion per year. They argue blithely the money would come from additional tax revenue at the state level.

The next question: What money is that?

I-1351 aside, the state already might have to spend as much as $5.7 billion more on education through 2019 to comply with the court’s McCleary decision. That’s after the $1 billion the Legislature already has added.

In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled Washington was not meeting its constitutional obligation to fully fund basic education. The ruling rests on Legislature-enacted reforms, one of which already requires class sizes in kindergarten through third grade to be capped at 17 students.

Now, pile I-1351 on top of that. The state Office of Financial Managementestimates that 1351 could cost the state another $4.7 billion through 2019. Further, the Washington Research Council estimates that local school districts might have to spend as much as $960 million in costs not paid by the state.

OFM director David Schumacher has been sharing a sobering briefing with many state and elected officials and groups about the difficult choices before the Legislature. State revenues are expected to increase by about $2.8 billion in the 2015-2017 budget cycle. But OFM expects the state budget still to be hundreds of millions of dollars in deficit when considering the cost of maintaining current levels of state service; paying pension payments, debt service and legal obligations; and adding a teacher cost-of-living increase, which is in law although it has been suspended in recent years.

That’s without putting a cent toward McCleary — which might cost as much as $2 billion in 2015-2017.

Proponents of I-1351 say the initiative ensures smaller class sizes for students through high school. The League of Education Voters, an advocacy group that successfully championed a class-size reduction initiative in 2000, opposes Initiative 1351, saying there is little evidence that small class sizes make a difference during the later years of a student’s education.

Providing students more attention from their teachers and less chaos in the classroom is a worthy goal. But I-1351 adds an unnecessary burden to the state’s already serious mission to fully fund and reform an education system that meets the needs of our youngest citizens and our state.

Remember, the state already is on track to reduce class sizes in kindergarten through third grade — levels where volumes of research support class sizes make a difference.

As the challenge stands now, the Legislature might well have to consider raising taxes to pay for its McCleary obligation and the rest of state government. That task will be hard enough without this wrongheaded initiative.

Voters should reject I-1351.

Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, Blanca Torres, Robert J. Vickers, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).

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