When scared legislators skimp on our schools, that’s on us


(July 16, 2015) — Last November, Washington voters passed Initiative 1351, directing the Legislature to allocate funding for smaller K-12 class sizes, with extra class-size reductions in high-poverty schools. Increased funding for these changes was to have been phased in over four years. This would have required an expenditure of about $800 million next year.

That was the law. But what did our Legislature do? They didn’t fund smaller class sizes for kids in second grade through high school. And after refusing to fund the law, they changed it. What they didn’t say is that to fully fund I-1351, we are going to have to raise more money. The best way to do that is to make sure the wealthiest are paying their fair share of taxes.

Instead, legislators said that I-1351 would blow a hole in the budget. Makes me wonder why the Republicans in the State Senate were saying all along that there was no need for new taxes. That non-action was only possible because they had no intention of funding the smaller class sizes voted by the people. Neither did the Democrats.

In its place, the Senate Republicans claim that the two-year operating budget “fully funds education, reduces college tuition and protects the social safety net without raising new taxes.” The House Democrats say: “The new state budget puts a record amount of new funding into our public schools and cuts college tuition without raising new taxes. This is a budget for the people, not the powerful.”

Actually, this budget was all about protecting the powerful, by skimping on the people, especially their kids.

This budget does put $350 million to lower class sizes for kindergarten and 1st grade students in high-poverty schools. But then it takes away $2 billion for the implementation of I-1351. The vast majority of students — over 800,000 — will not have the benefit of smaller classes which I-1351 had guaranteed.

Our Superintendent of Public Instruction observed, “The Legislature has delayed by at least four years the implementation of voter-approved Initiative 1351… Moreover, the Legislature has failed to comply with the order from the Supreme Court to produce a…pathway to full funding of basic education by 2018.”

This miserable outcome is only because lawmakers — both Democrats and Republicans — are afraid of being attacked for supporting new taxes, even taxes on the top 1%. They are worried more about their re-election than about stable revenue for public services, like education.

So, you see, we are all to blame for this situation, because we all go along with the notion that taxes are bad and new taxes are worse. It seems like we think we can run our government on manna from heaven. But that ain’t going to happen.

The Legislature could find new revenue. In fact, we will have to, because four years from now, the piper will come calling, when I-1351 is to be fully funded, as the Legislature has determined. Where will we get that revenue? The proposed capital gains tax would not be enough. But how about the top 1%? They are about 10,000 families with incomes averaging over $1.2 million.  They take home more than one fifth of all income in our state. If we were to tax their income at 5%, exempting the first half a million dollars they received, we would have about $2.5 billion in new revenues for the next biennium. With that money, we could fully fund I-1351, and reduce college tuition by another 25%.

The tragedy of this is that each individual legislator had exceptional power to make sure I-1351 was funded. In order to amend an initiative, both the Senate and the House must have a two-thirds majority. That means that it takes only 16 state senators or only 33 state representatives to block an amendment. It would have been easy to stop a delay of I-1351.

But the delay was approved, with 9 Democratic senators joining 24 Republicans to override I-1351. In the House, more Republicans voted to keep I-1351 than Democrats!

Our Legislature seems to specialize in managing a fiscal crisis. What we need is to sweep away that fiscal crisis. What a concept. Tax the 1%, expand K-12 education, and make higher education truly affordable! Now all we need is the political leadership and courage to make this happen. And that’s not just the Legislature and the Governor, that is all of us.

John Burbank is the executive director and founder of the Economic Opportunity Institute in Seattle. John can be reached at john@eoionline.org.

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