Not all sold on raising sales tax to help schools

Initiative 884 — the billion-dollar Hail Mary to cure the state’s ailing schools — may not fix every education problem in Washington, but with its massive infusion of cash, the measure would undoubtedly make a dent in areas where money alone can help: college enrollment, class size, teacher pay and preschool programs for disadvantaged children.

There are sharp disagreements about whether the initiative is a good idea, and campaigns on both sides have plenty of time to make their cases before the November general election.

In the meantime, though, analyses of the measure from the state government and various interest groups are trickling in, and some conclusions are finding general acceptance:

# If voters choose to raise the state sales tax from 6.5 percent to 7.5 percent, as I-884 proposes, the deluge of cash would be extraordinary.

A state Office of Financial Management analysis released last week concluded the measure would provide slightly more than $1 billion in fiscal year 2005-06, growing to $1.2 billion by 2008-09. Given that current state spending on public schools, including higher education, amounts to $6.5 billion a year, the initiative would represent a boost of about 15 percent.

# Part of that cash would create 25,000 additional slots for higher ed enrollment by 2008, easing — but not eliminating — the chronic shortage of space at state colleges and universities.

# Officials have offered free preschool programs to only 7,000 of the approximately 30,000 children most in need, OFM reports. Under I-884 the benefit could be extended to 10,000 more children, according to the initiative’s sponsors.

# Teachers would not only receive cost of living increases under I-884 but would also be eligible for bonuses: $5,000 a year if they obtain certain training, and $10,000 a year if they volunteer to work in a troubled school.

Approving the initiative in November would mark a critical first step in addressing the state’s problems, says the League of Education Voters, which is sponsoring the measure, because too many children and college hopefuls already are losing their footing in an increasingly competitive, high-tech world economy.

“I hope that voters ask themselves, ‘What sort of future do I want for my kids and for my grandkids?’ ” said Edward Lazowska, a University of Washington computer science professor and initiative backer. “And then think about whether the education system we have in this state is providing the preparation for that kind of future.”

Critics of the plan agree the state’s education system needs a curative, particularly in higher education, but they’re afraid the initiative’s dramatic sales tax increase could harm more than it fixes.

“I’m not convinced it will be good for education,” said former House Speaker Clyde Ballard, “but I am convinced it will hurt our economy.”

Ballard and other critics also have worried that the Legislature could spend the trust fund on something other than education.

However, the initiative builds a firewall around the money and creates an 11-member advisory board responsible for making sure the fund isn’t raided or undermined by cuts in education spending.

Beleaguered education

Even at a billion dollars, the league’s plan may be overshadowed by the scale of the state’s education spending and needs.

Washington spends $6.5 billion a year on education out of a nearly $12 billion annual budget. With 23.9 students per elementary class, its classrooms are more crowded than any state except Oregon and Arizona, according to a 2004 study published in Education Week, a top education newspaper.

The K-12 system has grown by more than 100,000 students since 1993, according to state figures, bringing the total to nearly 1 million. The number of high school graduates has risen from nearly 48,000 in 1993 to nearly 62,000 last year, according to the OFM, it’s still going up.

Because of that growth and the changing economy, the Higher Education Coordinating Board estimates the state will have to add more than 33,000 full-time positions in its colleges by 2010 just to keep the system struggling at status quo.

And the status quo isn’t doing the job, education officials warn.

The current rate of participation in Washington has made for stiff competition for students seeking to get accepted into any of the state’s universities and for getting into classes at the community college level.

Building up higher education

Signs of an overburdened system have been cropping up for more than a year.

Every college and university in Washington is overenrolled. Several universities have closed enrollment earlier than they have in the past.

The UW’s main campus, for example, has stopped taking transfer-student applications for the coming winter and possibly spring quarters. Its branch campuses in Tacoma and Bothell reported last month that they may also be turning away students this fall.

And at the community colleges, where a seat is supposed to be available for everyone seeking an education, competition for classes is unusually strong.

Several colleges reported last fall that every aspect of their campuses — from the size of classes and the number of offerings to parking — was “at a maximum.”

Under the initiative, at least 25,000 full-time student slots could be added to community colleges and universities by 2008. Enrollment in high-demand areas such as nursing could get additional funding to help close gaps in those areas more quickly.

“The reality is that demographics don’t lie,” said William Marler, a former Washington State University regent and current Higher Education Coordinating Board member. Marler, a Seattle attorney, said he has invested $100,000 in the measure and all but abandoned his law practice to campaign for I-884.

“We can spend the next 10 years debating, but we have this big bunch of high school students coming at us like a freight train,” he said.

“They are not going to stop graduating high school while we’re messing around the margins trying to fix things.”

A boost for preschool and K-12

The plan also calls for expanding preschool opportunities in the state as fast as possible, providing all-day, early learning programs to 10,000 more children from low-income families by 2010.

Currently, the state program serving that population reaches only 7,000 of the 30,000 preschool-age children in low-income Washington families, according to a 2002 needs assessment study conducted by state and federal officials.

Combined, the federal Head Start program and the state’s Early Childhood and Assistance Program serve half of the eligible students, said Mark Usdane, the league’s executive director.

The rest are on waiting lists, aging out of the reach of the two programs.

“By the end of 5 1/2 years, we will have 16,000 high-quality preschool slots” if I-884 passes, he said.

“We’ll never be able to teach every student,” added George Scarola, a campaign manager with the league, “but it is totally unacceptable to say to 10,000 3- and 4-year-olds in poverty that we’re not going to provide them preschool.”

Before lawmakers last year froze the league’s prior voter-approved plan to reduce class sizes in the state, several districts reported taking big steps in that direction.

In the 2002-2003 school year, Seattle Public Schools hired 130 new teachers and gave 72 hours of training devoted to improving student literacy to1,800 teachers.

The Bellevue School District hired 30 K-3 teachers, bringing class sizes down from one teacher for every 25 students to one for every 21. Similar figures were not available for Seattle.

“We were able to make the gains in the elementary (schools), but the thing that is killing us in this district is the middle and high school classes,” said Michael Riley, Bellevue’s superintendent. “If this thing (I-884) passed, one of the first things I would recommend to this community is that we apply the money to middle and high schools.”

Impact on economy

Several economic analysts have already weighed in on the impact the initiative could have on the state.

The measure would supplant some financing for an initiative passed in 2000 to lower class sizes with money from property taxes. I-884 would free up more than $480 million in property taxes for general fund spending in its first five years, concludes the state OFM.

Nevertheless, I-884 would increase the overall tax burden for everyone in the state.

Families on the lowest economic rungs already sacrifice the biggest share of their income: as much as 10 percent for a family earning $30,000 a year.

Families in Seattle making $60,000 a year would end up paying an extra $235 to $263 at the sales counter, according to state Department of Revenue estimates.

Initiative proponents acknowledge the sales tax increases the tax burden on the poorest Washington residents, but league officials said they have looked at all other alternatives, including an income tax. In their research, the sales tax came up as the only politically viable way to raise money for schools, they said.

“Voters have told us, if you can show us that this money is going to go to students, we’ll vote for it,” said Scarola.

Critics not only question the effectiveness of more education spending but say the damage to the economy may outweigh whatever benefits could come from the billion-dollar infusion.

By siphoning off more disposable income and making products in Washington more expensive, experts say the initiative could tighten the job market.

The Washington Research Council concluded recently that I-884 would effectively prevent the creation of up to 5,800 jobs statewide by 2010. The Council predicted a loss of 16,000 private-sector jobs and a gain of 10,200 public-sector jobs by 2010.

Offsetting that loss would be the long-term impact of new government spending and the hard-to-determine economic boost from better schooling.

“Educational attainment measured in either years of schooling or degrees earned has a powerful effect on labor market earnings,” the council stated in its June report.

Both sides of the issue concede that such economic forecasts are fraught with guesswork.

“People need to rely as much as anything on their common sense about what the factors are that create a strong modern economy and what the opportunities are that they want for their kids,” said Lazowska.

Ballard, the former Republican legislator who heads the anti-I-884 League of Freedom Voters, said expanding college enrollment is a good thing, “but there is a budget process in the Legislature, and that’s where this ought to be taken up.”


To check out the Office of Financial Management’s report on Initiative 884 go to:

For the Washington Research Council’s report on I-884:

The more conservative Washington Policy Center’s report is at:

The homepage of the opposition is:

Supporters can be found at:

P-I reporter Jake Ellison can be reached at 206-448-8346 or