Teacher trouble

Education backers fire up the initiative machine.

NICE PEOPLE DON'T back initiatives.

That's the message local media is spreading as Washington voters prepare to pass judgment on six initiatives on this November's ballot. Mukilteo's Tim Eyman, a prime mover behind four recent initiative campaigns, has picked up the thankless job as the public face of the modern-day voter-as-legislator. Attacked by editorialists and blasted by the state Supreme Court (which struck down an earlier Eyman-penned initiative), the Mukilteo tax-slasher was recently caricatured by Seattle Post-Intelligencer cartoonist David Horsey as a sneering bomb-thrower.

But this year's election presents some new faces on the initiative front. Lisa Macfarlane, the business-suited citizen volunteer behind recent Seattle School District levy campaigns, is now pushing I-728, the Class Size Initiative, a measure to increase funding for local school districts. Susan Scott, a soft-spoken West Seattle elementary educator, is stumping for I-732, the Teacher Pay Initiative, a proposal to give school employees automatic cost-of-living salary increases. Even Governor Gary Locke, a vocal foe of Eyman's creations, is backing these two efforts at direct democracy.

Eyman's tax-slashing Initiative 695 may have been the first brick through the budget display case, but the education initiatives show that even the "good guys" are equally eager to snatch their share of state money.

The Class Size Initiative would redirect a chunk of state lottery revenues and a portion of the state's budget surplus to local school districts while skimming off a portion of local property tax revenues for the same purpose. Local school boards could use the extra money to fund improvements in four areas: reduced early elementary (K-4) class sizes, teacher training, extended learning opportunities (such as all-day kindergarten and after-school programs), and early childhood education. This would provide approximately $1.8 billion in new education funding over the next five years.

Macfarlane notes that the Class Size Initiative is based on Locke's similar (although less costly) proposal to put more tax dollars into local schools. The governor's proposal was ignored by legislators, most of whom were more concerned with reacting to I-695's success by crafting a property tax cut. "In a post-695 world, they were focused on trying to give away revenue," said Macfarlane. "It became very clear that if we were going to get our oar into the surplus stream, it was now."

Opposition to the initiative has been muted. State Representative Brian Thomas, an Eastside Republican education booster, has been the most vocal critic of the Class Size Initiative. He says the initiative's success depends on good economic times and full state coffers. "The assumption is that there's free money somewhere," he said. Earmarking funds through initiatives squeezes the Legislature's ability to react to economic pressures, he warns. He says it's possible the initiative could lead to deep future cuts in noneducation programs.

THE TEACHER PAY Initiative is more straightforward in both its aims and its funding source. All school employees would receive annual cost-of-living raises based at the rate of inflation, with the state's general fund picking up the sizable tab (estimated at $412 million over the next two years alone).

Seattle teacher Scott admits that the Teacher Pay Initiative is "an act of desperation" but says the move to the ballot has been justified by legislative inaction. After Washington teachers held a one-day walkout in April 1999, legislators passed a modest package of salary increases. But even though legislators promised further help for teachers this last year, no help was forthcoming. "Teachers are now just beyond frustrated," she says. Scott notes that other states are working—and spending—to lure experienced educators into their classrooms. Friends in California have called to inform her that teaching positions comparable to hers are available at almost twice her current salary, says Scott.

Tom Albro of the Municipal League of King County argues that the Teacher Pay Initiative's cost-of-living salary increases are inadequate and will interfere with future efforts to address education funding. "If we're serious about retaining the best and brightest teachers, this isn't going to do it," he says. The Teacher Pay Initiative has also drawn fire from unions representing state employees outside the education field, who say the measure gives one class of workers special treatment.

The two initiatives also have some prominent defenders. Chuck Collins, former chair of the state's Higher Education Coordinating Board, says the two measures are well-written and reasonable—and largely the result of legislative inaction. And if legislators from the two parties can't get together to address common issues, these initiatives won't be the last ones. "The Legislature should consider they've got a very moderated message [in these two initiatives]," he says. "The next one may not be so moderate."

Will the next decade see direct democracy displace the Legislature's former lawmaking supremacy? Sherry Bockwinkel, the queen of Washington's initiative industry, isn't so sure. True, her company, Washington Initiatives Now, has collected more than 2 million paid signatures for initiative campaigns in the last decade, and the number of state initiatives has doubled from the 1980s to the 1990s. However, crowded ballots can put the public in the mood to vote no, she says. She cites the 1997 election, in which voters nixed all five of that year's ballot measures.

Bockwinkel says initiatives are simply a consequence of living in a politically polarized era. "If you look back over the last four years, the [GOP-dominated] Legislature has not touched any of the major issues," she said. "Gary Locke's a big proponent [of education funding]," she says. "But when you have the Republicans [in the Legislature] saying no, the only other place you can go is to the people."

 
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