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Washington State Hit With $4 Billion Bill By Voters

Washington state will have to make room in its budget for billions of dollars in extra spending after voters narrowly approved a ballot measure mandating that the state hire thousands of extra teachers.

Initiative 1351 will set a hard cap on class sizes in the state’s public schools, with the cap ranging from as few as 17 students to as many as 25, with higher grade levels getting a higher cap. The initiative was trailing by about 20,000 votes  after the first tally was completed on Tuesday, but Washington’s mail-in voting system meant about half of all ballots were still uncounted. As more ballots trickled in over the course of the week, 1351 steadily gained and, on Friday, finally took the lead. As of Monday, it was ahead by just one percent (18,000 votes out of over 1.8 million cast), but a large majority of outstanding ballots are from counties where the Yes vote is ahead, indicating a change in fortune is exceedingly unlikely.

Supporters argue that smaller class sizes will significantly improve educational outcomes in the Evergreen State, though research on the relationship between class sizes and long-term success has been mixed. Implementing the initiative is going to be costly, as until now Washington has had some of the largest average class sizes in the country. An official state estimate calculates that meeting the new staff requirements will require hiring over 20,000 people, at an annual cost to the state of about $1.7 billion. Washington budgets in two-year increments, with the most recent budget being for about $75 billion. Based on that figure, he initiative’s passage represents an abrupt hike of about five percent in state spending. The initiative itself contained no funding provision of any kind.

The impact on local governments will be even greater; the state’s estimate is that it will cost local governments over $2.1 billion per year to meet their new burdens.

Washington’s budget strain doesn’t end there, either. Thanks to 2012’s McCleary v. Washington state court decision, the state is already on the hook to increase school funding by several billion dollars by 2018. Currently, lawmakers have failed to prepare for the upcoming fiscal armageddon, as Republicans and Democrats cannot agree on how to pay for the mandate. Another lawsuit is currently ongoing, as teachers unions seek to force action from the state legislature sooner rather than later.

The initiative’s approval is a big win for teachers unions in the state, which backed the measure with great fervor. Hiring additional teachers both enlarges union rolls and also commits to the state to a vision of educational improvement that emphasizes higher spending and easing the burden of educators.

The win, late-arriving as it was, offers a major bright spot for teachers unions after what was largely a disappointing election cycle. In gubernatorial elections in Wisconsin, Florida, Maryland, and elsewhere, Democrats strongly backed by teachers unions were routed by Republican opponents.

Most union-backed ballot measures went dreadfully as well. Nevada’s Question 3 would have instituted a new 2 percent tax on all businesses earning over $1 million, and directed the profits to public schools. Voters left no doubt about their answer to that question, with a crushing 75 percent voting against the tax. Similarly, in Colorado, Amendment 68 would have expanded gambling in the state and channeled the funds to public schools; the measure was failed to clear 30 percent. Another Colorado measure, Proposition 104, was an even deeper humiliation. The proposition requires all collective bargaining negotiations between teachers unions and school boards to occur publicly, without closed-doors negotiating. The measure was crafted by a conservative think-tank and is expected to weaken the hand of unions.

The few other victories unions had this week include the passage New York’s Proposal 3, which authorized $2 billion in bonds to improve school technology, and the defeat of Missouri’s Amendment 3, a long-shot measure that would have increased test-based accountability for teachers but which failed by a big margin.

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