Initiative 1351 Brings Uncertainty To Underfunded Public Schools

Dec 1, 2014

Initiative 1351 will add more than 25,000 positions around the state but administrators are still unsure about funding and other factors of the passed bill.
Credit Kim Love / Flickr

Now that the class size Initiative 1351 has been passed by voters, school administrators and government officials are scrambling to figure out how to implement it. 

Teacher Aurora Cruz at McClure Elementary school in Grandview paced beside the blackboard and asked her fourth grade students to open their library books.

“Diego! Book!” Cruz said sharply when one student was slow to heed her instructions.

Within seconds, an almost inconceivable silence took hold of the room as 27 nine -year-olds plunged into their reading. Classroom management was never a problem for Ms. Cruz who had 30 students in her class last year.

“I am what you’d call a strict teacher,” Cruz explained, “but I work so many hours beyond my regular workday.”

Under Initiative 1351, which voters passed in November, Cruz’s class is set to shrink to 22 pupils as soon as next year. For Cruz, the initiative means fewer book reports and fewer kids needing extra help.
For her superintendent, it’s just the opposite. More teachers, librarians, principals, nurses, and paraprofessionals. As it’s written, the initiative will add more than 25,000 positions around the state including 30 percent more teachers in Grandview.

“What we’re all concerned about is, first of all, where are you gonna find them, two, where are you gonna house them, and three, who’s gonna pay for it?” Superintendent Kevin Chase said.

Chase said Grandview schools already have six openings for new teachers and no qualified applicants so far this year. In rural areas, he said it’s hard to find someone with a master’s degree willing to put in long hours for comparatively low pay. Despite this, his biggest problem is space. Grandview is a growing district and 1351 has no provision for adding new facilities. 

“The state only funds construction to the point of the number of kids you have...As soon as you get a building built, you’re already putting portables out,” Chase said.

His perspective echoes concerns felt by school administrators throughout central Washington. Also, at the state level concern about Initiative 1351 is less about the merits of reducing class size and more about how to pay for it. Washington State already faces a budget deficit estimated at up to $4 billion and the initiative would add nearly $3 billion more over the next four years.

“If the legislature doesn’t add new revenue, they will be forced to cut things like healthcare and food support, other critical things like housing that kids need to be successful in school,” argued Kim Justice, Senior Budget Analyst with the Center on Budget and Policy.

Because the sacrifices could be so great other analysts, like Frank Ordway, question whether Initiative 1351 will actually go into effect.

“You know, you could shut down the prisons, you could forgo the entire higher ed system. I mean, that’s the scope of 1351,” Ordway said.

Ordway is Director of Government Affairs with the League of Education Voters, an advocacy group which opposed 1351.

“There’s not the votes from the Republican caucus in either chamber for the taxes necessary to fund 1351. There’s also not the votes in either chamber for the cuts that would be necessary to fund 1351. So there’s no current vote to be had to either fund it or undo it,” he explained.

Ordway believes it’s more likely lawmakers will scramble and find the two-thirds majority required to amend the initiative and pass something smaller.

Meanwhile, Grandview's Kevin Chase is short on teachers and classrooms both. He hopes Initiative 1351 will push the legislature to focus on its “paramount duty” under the Washington State constitution.

“It’s not a cutting issue,” Chase said, “We think they should find revenue to educate all kids residing within the border.”

Copyright 2014 Northwest Public Radio