Education faces another financial hit across Washington state

If the state House has its way, an education funding initiative that passed with 72 percent of the vote in 2000 will be suspended for the next two years.

If the state House has its way, an education funding initiative that passed with 72 percent of the vote in 2000 will be suspended for the next two years.

A budget proposal for the 2011-13 budget biennium put forth by the House on Monday suspends Initiative 728 funding, which is money that was intended to go toward decreasing class sizes, training teachers, funding all-day kindergarten and even extending the school day.

Politicians must find a way to solve a $5 billion-plus state budget shortfall, and at $860 million, I-728 is the largest single cut in the House’s budget proposal.

The next state budget, however, will be a combination of platforms put forth by the House, the governor and the Senate. Gov. Chris Gregoire released her budget proposal in December; it eliminates around $216 million of I-728 funding — less extreme than the House’s $860 million suspension.

The Senate has yet to release its budget plan. Educators were expecting that I-728 would be put through the ringer.

“(Monday’s) news was not a surprise,” said Lisa MacFarlane, part of a group that thought of and got I-728 on the ballot in 2000. She went on to help found the League of Education Voters, where she works now. “We knew it was coming, but that doesn’t make us any less disappointed.”

Budget cuts in the last two years have devastated I-728 funding. The initiative was suspended for 2010-11, meaning that school districts got nothing. In 2009-10, the per-full-time enrolled student allocation was slashed 70 percent to $131.16 from $458.10 in 2008-09.

In a 2010 League of Education Voters blog post, MacFarlane wrote, “Most important, what’s missing from I-728 in the budget isn’t just the money, but the opportunities for kids in school to reach their full potential. The chronic underfunding of our public schools has had a very real impact on the quality of education for our kids.”

School districts have dealt with the funding cuts in different ways, and the loss of money has mostly been expected. In Federal Way, $2 million in I-728 funds was carried over to the district’s 2010-11 budget from the previous (2009-10) budget year, according to district documents. Nearly $1.2 million of that was marked for all-day kindergarten, leaving a balance of $810,000.

The district lost a total of $2.7 million in I-728 funds out of the the 2010-11 school year budget.

In years past, I-728 was a big piece of revenue. According to district documents, Federal Way received $9.6 million and $9.7 million from I-728 in the 2007-08 and 2008-09 budget years, respectively.

Based on Gregoire’s proposal, Federal Way as of March was projecting $2.1 million less in I-728 funds. Superintendent Rob Neu said that the district is still reviewing the House’s proposal, saying that “no firm conclusions” can be drawn until the Senate releases its budget.

“We realize that we are in an unprecedented economic crisis, and must accept a share of the reductions that lead to a balanced state budget,” Neu said in a written statement. “Our greatest  concern is that legislative decisions to balance the state budget are made in an equitable and responsible manner.”

It’s likely that Federal Way will see zero I-728 funds for the upcoming 2011-12 budget year. The fight in Olympia between legislators and educators has switched to items like levy equalization and keeping raises for teachers who attain National Board certification.

A hopeful initiative

MacFarlane said that the idea that would eventually become I-728 got rolling in 1998. At the time, the state had a surplus, and there was talk about using it as some sort of tax refund. A group of education supporters — like school board members and community activists — thought that the money should be put toward schools.

“It was pretty clear that the Legislature wasn’t going to do it on their own,” she said.

The initiative was written in a way that allowed the money to be used for a number of activities, so school districts were not girdled. It is often talked about as money that reduces class sizes in grades kindergarten through fourth, which it does. The House proposal does address class size, saying “Funding is partially restored for lower class sizes in grades K-3 in high-poverty schools. The funding amount assumes class sizes of 24.23 in grades K-3 in schools which have free and reduced-price lunch eligible student populations exceeding 50 percent, based on a three-year rolling average of enrollment.” But the money can also be used to reduce class sizes in fifth through twelfth grade; pay for extended school days or after-school instruction; supplement professional development; fund all-day kindergarten; and can be used for construction that makes class sizes smaller.

The initiative appeared on the Nov. 7, 2000, ballot in a presidential election year, when voter turnout is higher. It passed with 72 percent of the vote statewide. In King County, it was closer to 75 percent.

By 2010, the entire benefit to school districts was around $2.5 billion.

Though the House would suspend I-728, that does not mean it’s going away. The initiative has no real expiration, but says, “This investment should continue until the state’s contribution to funding public education achieves a reasonable goal.”

Has the state reached that reasonable goal?

“No,” MacFarlane said flatly. “It’s not going way. It might come back in a new form.”