2004: Mixed signals on education

Gregory Roberts
December 27, 2004

In a year when elections for the White House and the Statehouse drew most of the political attention in Washington state, voters on Nov. 2 also made key choices affecting the schoolhouse.

But those decisions still left some big questions unsettled in educational policy, and taken together, sent something of a mixed message from the public.

Three education-related items appeared on the statewide ballot:

Superintendent of public instruction. Two-term incumbent Terry Bergeson faced a strong challenge from former Superintendent Judith Billings. The flash point of the campaign: the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, the standardized test used as a yardstick under the federal No Child Left Behind law and the state's 11-year-old school reform program, which soon will require success on the WASL for high school graduation. Bergeson, a strong defender of the WASL, won easily.

Initiative 884. This measure proposed a 1-cent-on-the-dollar increase in the state sales tax to raise $1 billion a year for education, from preschool through college. Presented as an answer to pressing financial needs, it was soundly defeated.

Referendum 55. This measure subjected a charter-school law approved by the Legislature to ratification by voters. Charter schools, legalized in 40 states, get public money but operate free of many state and local regulations. The charter-school law was decisively rejected.

The R-55 outcome marked the third time in eight years that voters statewide have spurned a charter-school proposal, and even Rep. Dave Quall, D-Mount Vernon, the bill's House sponsor, says the issue is dead in this state for the foreseeable future.

The re-election of Bergeson as head of the state's K-12 bureaucracy did not provide the same kind of clear verdict on educational policy: Her political platform covered a variety of issues, including support for charter schools. But with the WASL at the heart of the campaign, some see the outcome as an endorsement of the state's reform program.

Bergeson's victory "showed me that people are interested in staying the course with education reform efforts," said Lisa Bond, president of the Seattle Council of the PTA.

Interpreting the I-884 vote may be an even murkier proposition.

Considering R-55 and I-884 together, Executive Director Jennifer Vranek of the Partnership for Learning, a business-backed educational policy group, said, "I don't think the voters felt a sense of urgency about putting more choice into public schools or putting more money into public schools."

And Steve Mullin, president of the Washington Roundtable, a business leaders' policy group with links to the Partnership, said the three elections as a whole affirmed the status quo.

"The one thing you take out of it is that there's a pretty strong confidence level in the general direction the state is going," he said.

But Bond and others frame the defeat of I-884 as a rejection of the sales tax increase, rather than as a sign of public satisfaction with the level of financial support for schools.

"It was just seen as not the right tax at the right time," Bond said. "I don't think it was 'We don't want to pay for education;' it was 'We don't want to pay that way.' "

Given the historical resistance to tax increases in statewide elections, the 60-40 vote against I-884 was not unexpected, said Charles Hasse, president of the Washington Education Association, the union that represents public schoolteachers.

"What was newsworthy about it," he said, "was that many people took the risk of bringing the issue forward, and a coalition was built and support was garnered for increasing school funding."

State PTA President Meg Bushnell said the campaign for I-884 raised public consciousness.

"Even though the initiative did not pass, people are aware that there's a situation and that it is not being dealt with and that funding is not adequate," she said. "If nothing else, it got the conversation going."

That conversation is sure to continue in 2005. The WEA wants more money from the Legislature for teacher compensation. And local school districts say the state must kick in more to cover their needs.

A coalition of 11 school districts filed a lawsuit in September to force the state to increase its payouts for special education. The districts argue the state is not meeting its obligations under past court decisions.

Seattle, the state's largest school district, did not join the lawsuit, but it's got plenty of money problems, too. Administrators expect a $12.2 million shortfall for 2005-06 and as much as $19.1 million for 2006-07 unless programs are cut from the $430 million annual operating budget. They've raised the possibility of closing up to 20 schools and sharply reducing student transportation to save money.

The district's capital spending programs also are coming up short. That situation is exacerbated by $13 million to $19 million in projected spending to clean up contamination of school drinking water by lead, iron and other metals, a problem that embroiled the district in controversy for much of the past year.

Higher education officials also will be looking to Olympia for help after the failure of I-884. The initiative would have underwritten expansion of the state college and university system by 25,000 students. The schools are overenrolled now, and the largest high school class in the state's history will graduate in 2008.

Those students, who will be the first class subject to the WASL diploma rule, also would need a fourth year of high-school math for admission to state universities under a proposal put forth by the Higher Education Coordinating Board this month. Public hearings on the proposal will take place during the next few months, with a vote in the spring.

The University of Washington picked Mark Emmert as its new president in July. His challenge: to get more funding from the state.