Fed up with Olympia: Can smaller class sizes make the ballot?

Sometimes, Desi Saylors has to keep an eye on 32 middle schoolers with 16 scalpels. Sometimes those 32 seventh and eighth graders have 16 lit bunsen burners along with 16 bottles of hydrochloric acid.

Saylors teaches life and earth sciences at Komachin Middle School in Lacey. She teaches five classes of 32 kids a day — a total of 160 students daily. Teaching sometimes takes a back seat to making sure no gets sliced, stabbed, burned or worse.

The key, she says, is to build one-to-one rapport with kids.

"It's tricky because you have to have rapport to keep track of them," she said. "… Without trust and rapport, you can't teach teenagers." Keeping track of students becomes less of a problem, allowing Saylors to focus more on teaching, when her class size drops to 24 students instead of 32.

And that is why Saylors is a committee member of the statewide Class Size Count organization, announced Monday in Seattle — a signature drive to put Initiative 1351 on the November ballot. The initiative, which mirrors two failed legislative bills, would shrink class sizes in Washington public schools.

This school year, K-3 classes in non-poverty schools had an average of 25.3 students for every teacher. Initiative 1351 would require that all K-3 class sizes shrink to just 17 students by 2019. In grades 4-12, non-poverty class sizes currently hover around 27 or 28 students. Under 1351, class sizes in grades 4-12 would be set at 25 students for each teacher. The Initiative does not address where the money to fund smaller class sizes would come from.

Earlier this year, Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, and Sen. Marko Liias, D-Mukilteo, introduced these same class size caps as twin bills to address the teacher-student ratios envisioned in the Washington Supreme Court's 2012 McCleary Decision. Neither bill made it beyond the committee stage.

The McCleary Decision, which found that the state wasn't adequately funding public K-12 education, ruled that Washington must reduce teacher-to-student ratios in grades K-3, increase instructional hours in high schools and make some other improvements by mid-2019. Those class size caps were based on the findings of a bipartisan "Quality Education Council" assembled under a 2009 law, which set targets for teacher-to-student ratios: One teacher for every 17 students in grades K-3.

During this year's legislative session, Gov. Jay Inslee and legislative Democrats pushed unsuccessfully for more McCleary funding. Republicans, whose biggest weapon is the largely-Republican Majority Coalition Caucus, contended that the Supreme Court does not have the legal right to tell the Legislature how to allocate money. The size of state government, the coalition argued, should not be grown with new tax revenue. Instead, they insisted, social services should be trimmed.

So far, the state government is lagging on funding a steady McCleary timetable. Putting in place all of the Supreme Court's recommendations will cost an estimated $4 to $4.5 billion between 2013 and 2019. The Legislature has so far appropriated roughly $1 billion for McCleary work — a figure that was carved out of the most recent state budget. Between 2015 and 2019, the Legislature will need to appropriate an additional $3 billion to $3.5 billion.

Unhappy with the legislative program, the Supreme Court has given the Legislature until April 30 to present a catch-up plan. So far, Republicans and Democrats in Olympia have shown no public movement towards a joint plan.

Supporters of Initiative 1351 say that's exactly why they're taking things into their own hands. "We're trying to put pressure on the Legislature to comply with the Supreme Court," said Mary Howes, campaign manager for Class Size Counts. "… In short, that is why we're taking this directly to the people."

"One way we as people can affect the Legislature is to pass an initiative," explained 1531 supporter David Perez, the Seattle parent of a newborn daughter. 

To make the November ballot, the I-1351 effort has to deliver 246,372 valid signatures to the Washington Secretary of State's office. by July 3. To reach that goal, according to Howes, the campaign will need to collect roughly 350,000 signatures by July 3rd.

One bright spot for the campaign: Last Friday, Washington Education Association delegates voted overwhelmingly to support the signature drive. 

This story has been updated since it first appeared to correct a name spelling.

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