The Washington Education Association, the union that represents most schoolteachers in this state, is teaching Washington a most valuable lesson this week. You can’t believe everything you hear.
For the last few days a radio ad has been making the claim the Senate has voted to make classrooms more crowded and shortchange teacher salaries, at the same time we’re raising our own salaries by 11 percent. The ad features a tagline: “You can’t be serious.”
Ordinarily when I hear an ad like this one, I wince and tell myself that’s politics. But right now, teachers in at least nine school districts have voted to go on a one-day strike, apparently aimed at the Legislature. State law prohibits teacher strikes, and to underscore that, seven of these union locals signed agreements with their local school districts promising not to walk off the job. Meanwhile WEA is planning a rally on the Capitol steps for Saturday. Perhaps we should be thankful it is not scheduled for a school day, but in a case like this we need to point out the union is playing fast and loose with the facts.
Have we voted to make classrooms more crowded? No. In fact, the legislature has agreed to spend substantially more money to reduce class sizes in grades K-3. But neither Republicans nor Democrats are eager to launch the costly hiring spree required by Initiative 1351, the measure backed by WEA that requires smaller classes in all grades.
The cost is staggering, $3.8 billion every two years when I-1351 is fully implemented. The Office of Financial Management tells us we would have to hire 7,500 more teachers and 18,000 staff. The union gave us no way to pay for it. The House and the Senate have different ways of avoiding the cost – we want to send it back to the voters and ask how they want to raise the money. Even if we had it, aren’t there better ways to spend it? Studies show smaller class sizes in the upper grades are of limited value. I suppose WEA membership rolls would benefit — this might have something to do with the union’s frustration.
Teacher salaries? We’re giving the cost-of-living increases approved by voters years ago in Initiative 732, at a cost of $230 million. What we aren’t doing is providing the COLA-on-top-of-a-COLA that has been approved by the House. That’s shortchanging teachers?
As for the idea that we’re increasing salaries 11 percent – that’s not our doing; it is the recommendation of a citizens’ commission on salaries for elected officials, a body approved by Washington voters 29 years ago.
I think we need to lay out all the facts if we are going to have an objective discussion. Our budget proposal in the Senate this year gives K-12 the biggest share of spending we have seen in 30 years. All told, we propose spending $2.7 billion more for K-12 than we did two years ago. This is a 17.8 percent increase – other areas of the operating budget get just 6 percent more. We have turned the corner on education spending, reversing the trend of the last three decades in which education’s share of the budget has steadily declined.
More importantly, we take a holistic view of education – it’s not just about K-12 schools but also early learning and higher ed. This year we take an important stand against the stratospheric tuition increases of recent years, by rolling back tuition 25 percent. We also recognize that smaller classes aren’t just a matter of hiring teachers – in our capital budget we launch a six-year, $1 billion program to build more than 2,100 K-3 classrooms across the state. We’re shortchanging schools? You can’t be serious.
Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee, is chair of the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus.