Special Report

The Tiddlywinks Initiative

Washington state voters are being asked to spend $1 billion more each year on nonachieving schools.

By 10.21.04

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WASHINGTON -- Voters generally oppose tax increases, but opinion polls often show they will support them if they believe the money will go to support education. The state of Washington will test that theory on November 2.

Initiative 884 would impose a 15.4 percent increase in the state's sales tax to raise an additional $1 billion a year for education in Washington. According to the League of Education Voters, the primary organization backing I-884, the measure will create 16,000 pre-school slots for children, reduce class sizes, raise teacher pay, provide additional classes in high school, fund 32,000 slots in colleges and universities, and expand college scholarships for graduating high school seniors. Give the drafters of I-884 credit: they have given something to every level of education in the state, thereby uniting most of the education community in support of the measure.

As with most initiatives, the devil is in the details. Teachers who meet certain standards receive an annual bonus of $5,000. Teachers who meet those standards and teach in a "high need" school receive an annual bonus of $15,000!

So what are these standards? Dramatic improvement in test scores? Boosting the graduation rate? Remember, this is something the education establishment supports -- so nothing so rigorous. Rather, they simply have to be certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. This requires completion of six essays at an "assessment center" on a Saturday morning, submitting elaborate portfolios with three examples of student work and extensive teacher commentary on the work, video documentaries of the class in action, and documentation of professional commitment outside the classroom. Supposedly this will improve teacher quality and thereby boost student performance. The one little problem is there is no academic evidence that National Board Certification increases academic achievement.

There is nothing in I-884 that actually requires teachers in Washington to improve student academic achievement. As Marsha Richards, head of the education reform center at the free-market Evergreen Freedom Foundation in Olympia, puts it, "What this amounts to is the education establishment saying 'trust us.' We're already trusting them with $9.2 billion in education funding and we have a climbing dropout rate and stagnant test scores."

But, again, one has to give the backers of I-884 credit. Their campaign emphasizes "accountability." According to the I-884 website, this accountability includes creating a citizen oversight board to ensure that the money is properly spent, creating a "trust fund" so that Washington state legislators can't supplant existing education funds, and the ever-vague "monitoring results." By stressing accountability, the League of Education Voters muddles the issue. Voters who aren't paying close attention might think that accountability means that teachers are being held to higher standards.

Nor is the "trust fund" to be trusted. The state constitution allows legislators to amend any initiative with a two-thirds vote the day it passes, and they may do so with a simple majority two years after the initiative passes. "Political reality says they will," says Richards. "They've done so with every other initiative in recent memory. And this is a billion dollars. Their fingers are itching."

In short, I-884 results in lots of new money for education, no accountability from teachers and bureaucrats, and plenty of leeway for legislators to make mischief. It is a typical education establishment plan.

SO WILL WASHINGTON STATE approve I-884? Voters there have previously approved initiatives that were friendly to the education establishment. These included I-728 to reduce class size and I-732 to increase teacher pay. Indeed, it was the legislature's suspension of these two initiatives, due to budget pressures, that created the impetus for I-884.

Yet those initiatives didn't require a tax increase. One that did, I-77, would have raised the tax on coffee products by a dime to support pre-school programs in Seattle. Known as the latte tax, caffeine buzzes won out over the tiny tots last September, as Seattle residents voted it down by a 2 to 1 margin.

Furthermore, I-884 isn't receiving huge support from Washington's teacher union, the Washington Education Association. While the WEA approves the measure, it is preoccupied with its own fight against Referendum 55, which would lift the ban on charter schools in Washington.

In the bigger scheme of political things, I-884 means very little if it passes, but a whole lot if it fails. If it succeeds, then it can be dismissed as voters in a relatively liberal state voting for higher taxes. But if it goes down to defeat, then both opponents of high taxes and school-reform proponents will have a big feather in their cap. Tax opponents will be able to point to Washington and say that even voters in a liberal state won't stomach tax increases, even if they are earmarked for education. School-reform proponents will be able to say that the public is tired of "business-as-usual" in education.

Whatever the outcome on election day, Washington is proving that the education establishment's plan for public education is just "more of the same."

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About the Author

David Hogberg is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.  Follow David Hogberg on Twitter.