Can voters really trust Initiative 884?

Sound Off is a public forum. Articles are selected from letters to the editor or may be written specifically for this feature. Today, Lynn Harsh and Marsha Richards of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation examine Initiative 884, which will appear on the November ballot in Washington.

Initiative 884 calls for a 15.4 percent sales tax increase to raise $1 billion a year in additional funding for our state’s education system. Backers of the measure promise taxpayers the expenditures would be targeted, accountable and efficient.

Unfortunately, they are wrong. Even if they could guarantee the money would be used for the programs proponents advertise, the programs themselves have shown little or no promise of increased academic achievement, which is the point of the initiative.

The initiative’s own ballot title — which is all some voters may read — makes no mention of a tax increase, but instead talks about a dedicated fund: “Initiative Measure No. 884 concerns dedicating funds designated for educational purposes.”

I-884 sponsors have labeled the measure a “trust fund” leaving the impression that the extra dollars raised will be off-limits to all but the expenditures designated in the initiative. This is not the case. Washington’s solicitor general has stated: “We’ve listed the name of the fund in the title in quotes with the word ‘trust,’ but ... although the drafters denominate it as a ‘trust fund’ it appears to be purely a statutory dedicated fund.”

Funds dedicated in statute are regularly re-allocated by the legislature. So, while I-884 proponents have made much of the measure’s so-called “firewall” to protect funds from “unauthorized uses or political interference,” the firewall is made of straw, at best. Legislators legally hold matches in both hands.

They are permitted to redirect or override the initiative with a two-thirds vote at any time, or with a simple majority vote after two years. Within a decade, few initiatives resemble their original form and intent.

In addition, most of the dollars dedicated to education are sent to districts using an “allocation model,” meaning districts have flexibility on how the money is actually spent, which can alter or ignore legislative intent.

Decades of data show that this is exactly what happens. Many dollars allocated by the legislature for specific purposes are bargained away in union contracts at the district level.

For example, the legislature currently provides funding to reduce K-12 class sizes to 17 students per teacher. Most teachers can tell you their classes are much larger than this. So where is the class-size-reduction money? Why aren’t the people asking for more first trying to find out where the current funds are being spent?

The allocation model is used to prevent Olympia from micromanaging education decisions that are best left to local schools. But on those terms, it’s hardly fair to continually blame lawmakers for under-funding specific elements of education.

No defined outcomes. When it comes to the results we can expect if I-884 becomes law, taxpayers will have to be content to allow “trust fund recipients to develop and meet key performance benchmarks.”

The promise of the initiative amounts to: “If you give us $1 billion, we’ll figure out how to spend it. Trust us.”

There are no outcomes defined in the initiative, and no consequences in case of failure. It’s a high-risk proposition for taxpayers, and current education spending and performance do not inspire confidence.

No citizens on the Citizen Oversight Board? I-884 funds would be managed by a twelve-member Citizen Oversight Board. Eight of the board’s members would be appointed by the governor and three others would be chosen by the governor or state agencies to represent early childhood education, K-12 and higher education.

In other words, the chances of seating board members who are not pre-approved by the status-quo crowd are slim to none. Ironically, the final member would be the state’s independently elected state auditor, but he would be the only member not permitted to vote.

In addition to being the only member on the Citizen Oversight Board who would not be allowed to vote on matters related to I-884, the state auditor would not be permitted to do performance audits on the initiative’s expenditures, only limited financial audits as stipulated in state law.

Neither would he be allowed to help determine the scope of such audits if the Board determined they were necessary and chose to contract out to an auditing company. This is not sensible when the state auditor is 1) the only independently elected member of the board, 2) the only member of the board who has any auditing experience, and 3) is independently elected by the people according to the constitution.

I-884 funds would be distributed between early childhood education ($100,000,000), K-12 ($500,000,000) and higher education ($400,000,000). Within these broad categories, the initiative would allocate funds for increased spending on numerous activities and programs affecting toddlers to teachers. Will the funds be invested wisely?

-- Preschool programs. Studies of federal preschool programs for low-income children (such as Head Start and Title I) have been unable to verify long-term educational benefits for participants.

-- Class size reduction. According to data from controlled studies, comprehensive class size reduction has failed to live up to its promise of increased student achievement. The most important factors in student achievement are qualified teachers, classroom discipline, high standards and parental involvement.

While popular with the public, efforts to reduce class size outside the context of these factors have proven to be one of the most expensive and least effective education reform options.

-- Bilingual education. Between 1997 and 2002 only 1.8 percent of the students in our state’s bilingual education program graduated from high school, and only 7.5 percent successfully passed exit exams and transitioned out of the bilingual program. Objective reviews of the most successful bilingual education programs indicate we have pursued ineffective methods of teaching non-English speaking students in Washington state. Rather than change the course, our state’s bilingual education directors intend to spend more money doing more of the same thing that is not working now.

n Learning assistance. To date, no long-term studies have been completed to determine the overall effectiveness of the state’s learning assistance programs. A report published in 2002 by the taxpayer-funded Washington Institute for Public Policy concluded that “on average, students identified as receiving (learning assistance) services had slightly smaller (rather than larger) performance gains than other low-scoring students.”

This conclusion was accompanied by a disclaimer about the limitations of data for the review, which simply emphasizes the need to objectively evaluate the programs.

-- Teacher salaries and qualifications. If the goal is to raise student achievement, the quality of the teacher in the classroom is the most important controllable variable. But our state’s current rigid salary structure (which anchors teacher pay raises to seniority instead of performance) rewards poor or mediocre teachers, while providing disincentive for excellent teachers.

Merit pay has been shunned by education and union leaders as discriminatory and subjective. While this is a typical reaction for a bureaucracy, it should not be acceptable for the rest of us.

-- Colleges and universities. Many of our state’s colleges and universities are already enrolling more students than they have slots for (even though many of those students are academically under-prepared for higher education).

It is a safe bet that funds earmarked by I-884 to increase enrollments will simply be used to pay for current over-enrollment. Fewer than 50 percent of the students who enroll in higher education graduate, even after six years.

Furthermore, the number of hours professors actually spend in class is extremely low, exponentially increasing the cost of higher education. In many of our higher education institutions, professors spend less than 10 hours a week with students.

I-884 will not help students in our state achieve an excellent education because it fails to address the fundamental reforms necessary to fix what has become an outdated, over-burdened, monopolistic education delivery system.

The initiative does not turn the focus back to students and their families, and it does not provide excellent teachers with the professional freedom and rewards they deserve. I-884 will not guarantee smaller class sizes, highly qualified teachers, and the directing of more dollars to students’ classrooms.

Instead, the initiative will simply make the current bureaucracy one billion dollars bigger.

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