Inslee backs smaller class sizes for grades K-3, teacher raises

Gov. Jay Inslee rolled out highlights of his education budget Monday, saying he wants to reduce average class sizes in kindergarten through third grade, pay for all-day public kindergarten and reinstate cost-of-living raises for teachers that the voters approved years ago.

But he does not propose shrinking average class sizes in fourth grade and beyond, as voters endorsed a month ago.

His proposal for the 2015-17 biennium also puts a freeze on in-state college tuition for two more years at the state’s six four-year colleges and 34 community and technical colleges.

The two-year proposal would boost early childhood and K-12 funding by $2.3 billion over the biennium, and Inslee says it would go a long way toward meeting the state Supreme Court order known as the McCleary decision, and fulfill parts of it by 2017, a year earlier than required. McCleary mandates that lawmakers fully fund what the Legislature has defined as “basic education.”

Inslee would not say on Monday how he would pay for all of the above. He is unveiling his budget over four days, starting with education Monday, then transportation on Tuesday and climate Wednesday.

On Thursday, he is supposed to detail his plan for raising more than $1 billion in taxes and other new revenue.

The governor laid out his education-budget highlights Monday night during a town-hall-style meeting before an audience of about 70 people at Newport High School in Bellevue. Participants in Spokane, Moses Lake and Tacoma participated via a videoconference link.

Inslee called the budget “the biggest increase in basic education in a quarter-century.”

A viewer in Tacoma, noting that her son is at Tacoma’s Stadium High School, wanted to know whether the governor supports lowering class sizes in high schools as well.

Inslee said he would continue to work on lowering class sizes — something mandated in Initiative 1351, the measure approved by voters in November. However, he did not say when that might happen.

“I do not support repealing it,” he said, referring to 1351. 

The governor’s proposals are just the start of the budget debates in Olympia. The House and Senate will craft their own budget proposals during the upcoming session, which starts in January.

Teachers-union leaders were dismayed that Inslee does not want to fund Initiative 1351, which passed in November and requires lawmakers to pay for an estimated 25,000 new employees to work in K-12 public schools across the state, in part to reduce class sizes.

In Inslee’s proposal, there is no money to lower the number of students per class from fourth grade through high school.

“It’s the law — he can’t propose not to fund it,” said Jonathan Knapp, president of the Seattle Education Association, a major supporter of the initiative.

Under state law, it takes a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to suspend a voter-approved initiative in the first two years after it passes.

Kim Mead, president of the Washington Education Association, said reducing class sizes in all grades is part of funding basic education, and the Legislature needs to do so to fulfill the court’s McCleary decision. 

In a conference call Monday, David Schumacher, executive director of the Office of Financial Management, said there is not enough revenue to fully fund the initiative, “so we’ve chosen to fully fund the K-3 portion of that in this first biennium.”

Some Republicans took issue with the governor’s proposal to raise taxes to fund education, or through a climate initiative that he is scheduled to unveil Wednesday.

“Making it contingent upon a tax increase at all, be it a carbon-tax increase or any other tax increase, is fundamentally flawed,” said Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, one of the spokesmen for the Senate’s Republican caucus.

Dammeier also said reductions in class sizes from kindergarten through third grade should be phased in more slowly than Inslee has proposed.

The governor also wants to add $156 million to the state’s preschool programs, in part to add more than 6,000 spaces for low-income children.

Educators would get a combined cost-of-living raise and a pay increase totaling 3 percent in 2015-16, and 1.8 percent in 2015-16. They have not received a voter-mandated cost-of-living adjustment since 2008.

Inslee’s budget also includes $156 million for higher-education funding, and proposes freezing tuition for the next two school years at Washington public schools.

Inslee wants to put more money into a popular college-scholarship program, the Opportunity Scholarship program, that rewards students from low- and middle-class families who go into high-demand fields in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) and health care.

He also wants to add dollars to the College Bound program, aimed at encouraging young students to aim at going to college by promising them financial aid if they meet requirements, including graduating from high school with at least a C average.

But his proposal puts no new money toward an expansion of college financial aid under the State Need Grant program, which funds only about 70 percent of the students who are eligible.

A state policy group, the Washington Student Achievement Council, has recommended $25 million in new money for College Bound, which is included in Inslee’s budget, and $48 million to serve more students through the State Need Grant, which is not.

The budget does not include any money for a new Washington State University-run medical school in Spokane.

Staffers said Inslee is not yet ready to take a side on the issue.

While WSU wants to start its own medical school, the University of Washington wants to expand a program it already operates in Spokane.

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