by Cara Gardner
Should Washington citizens pay an extra 1 percent in sales tax to create an education trust fund for public schools? Voters will decide on Nov. 2. The fund, which would raise the state sales tax to 7.5 percent from 6.5 percent, would generate approximately $1 billion in new education funding annually and would be used to make classrooms less crowded, expand extended learning programs, increase salaries for eligible public school employees, fund retraining and additional training public school employees, increase preschool access and expand college enrollments and scholarships. Advocates say the public education trust fund will give public education a much-needed boost, subsequently creating jobs and encouraging a knowledge-based economy. But as with any tax increase proposal, the debate is heated.
"For one thing, it's a regressive tax, and for another, it's harmful to business," says John Beck, a professor of economics. "The fact that our tax is higher than other states', particularly border states like Idaho and Oregon, means we lose retail sales. Even throughout the state, we lose retail sales through mail order and the Internet. It's also harmful to business because -- and people never think about this -- over a third of sales tax comes from [retail sales of] business supplies. The combination of our sales and B & amp;O taxes paid directly by business is unusually large."
Beck was a member of the Washington State Tax Structure Study Committee headed by Bill Gates Sr., which issued a report in 2002 recommending a cut in overall state sales tax. He says not only will the 1 percent increase make Washington the state with the highest sales tax, but that the concept of an educational trust fund that benefits public education "across the board" -- meaning, preschool through college -- isn't going to be effective.
"I think there are some more narrowly targeted increases that would be more appropriate," Beck says, referring to studies he's seen that indicate reducing class sizes at a younger age may benefit students and teachers more than reducing class size throughout the whole educational system. He also says raising teachers' starting pay or merit pay is more beneficial than raises for all teachers across the board.
Initiative 884 specifies that some of the new money must be used to provide all eligible school district employees, and employees of community and technical college districts, a raise. In addition, teachers could receive an extra $5,000-a-year bonus through I-884 if they receive certification by a national board. The funds could be used to provide bonuses for teachers seeking national board certification, for teaching in "high-need" areas, for spending additional time on curriculum and lesson redesign, training, district-approved mentor teaching, principle-training programs or supplemental contracts. Students pursuing teaching degrees may also be eligible for monies from this trust fund.
For every opponent of I-884, though, there's an advocate who will point out that the need to fund public education is far greater than the need to save on sales tax.
"I would support [I-884] in a way I've never supported any candidate," says Chris Marr, managing partner at Foothills Automotive Group. Marr is also the former president of the Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce, a board member for Empire Health Services and a member of the Board of Regents for Washington State University. Funding public education, Marr says, is a smart business investment.
"I'm a car dealer, and obviously we sell high-ticket items. I had skepticism," he says, because a 1 percent increase in the state sales tax "would factor into the purchase of a vehicle -- so I really had to be persuaded that the benefit would outweigh the cost." After speaking with other business leaders, Marr says he was convinced I-884 is something that Washington state needs.
"The case is that it would be a huge mistake for a community that professes to place its chips on higher education with a University District, with research, to walk away from this opportunity to fund education in spite of the fact that we know it will have some impact. The Legislature had a chance, and they chose not to do it. There isn't a better source of revenue. If we wait for the glacial pace of legislation to address it, we will have already dropped far beyond where we are now." Marr points out that according to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2000-01, Washington state ranked 30th in the nation in terms of total spending on education from all sources. That's down from 17th in the nation just 10 years before.
"I've been involved with lots of economic development," Marr says, noting his past experience with the Chamber. "And the quality of K-12 education is the key driver in recruiting people to come here."
One of Beck's main concerns about I-884 is the inclusion of funding for higher ed, which he says should be funded through hikes in tuition, not sales tax. According to the initiative, the fund will be used to create at least 25,000 additional state-supported positions for student enrollments in higher education.
"Forty percent of these revenues will go for higher ed," Beck says, noting that college-educated people are more mobile and often take jobs out of state. "Institutions are going to hire people regardless of whether they graduated from a college in-state. I'm an example," he says, noting that he himself graduated from a Michigan college. "So they didn't get much of a return on that."
But Marr says that's exactly why the fund should include higher education. "Steve Balmer [Microsoft's CEO] said he's going to hire 2,000 people this year. Only 8 percent of those will be filled by Washington college graduates. Why? We don't have the ability to produce them with a background in engineering and computer sciences. We're importing [people] rather than raising up those in this state."
Marr goes on to note that opponents of the initiative call the tax "regressive."
"There's nothing more regressive than a lack of education," he says. "Twenty years ago, a student coming into college could expect the state to fund about two-thirds of the cost. Now, two-thirds is covered through tuition. You have to ask yourself, 'What's the purpose of public education?' It's to provide access across the whole socioeconomic spectrum. We do that by keeping education affordable and no one can argue that tuition is affordable right now - it's particularly expensive."
CHARTER SCHOOLS -- AGAIN?
For the third time in eight years, Washington citizens will vote on whether the state should legalize charter schools. Twice voters have denied the charter school referendum. This time around, the state legislature has passed Measure 55, meaning the citizens of the state can decide its fate.
Washington is one of 10 states in the nation that does not allow charter schools. There are about 3,000 charter schools in the United States, but even in states with hundreds of them, debates over their quality, performance and the affect they have on the other public schools continue. Data is mixed; some studies show students in charter schools have lower reading and math scores than students in traditional public schools, while other research demonstrates that students with special needs are able to learn better in charter schools.
Essentially, a charter school is a public school, but it does not operate under the same set of checks and balances, rules and regulations. Charter schools use the same funding as public schools, but they are independent from the school district they operate in. Supporters of charter schools say students are able to get a better education when teachers and administrators aren't bogged down by bureaucracy. But opponents argue that charter schools use taxpayer money without being held accountable to the taxpayers. While supporters claim that charter schools provide a quality environment for at-risk or special needs students, opponents say the best way to provide any student with the best education is by investing in the diverse programs already available in Washington's current public school system.
"Voters know what works: investing in existing public schools rather than draining money away for charter schools," says Rich Wood, spokesman for the Washington Education Association, which represents more than 77,000 public school employees "If this were to go into effect, it would drain $130 million from existing public schools. Most people know that's not the way to improve public education."
Schools get money from the state based on how many students are enrolled. There's concern that existing school programs wouldn't be funded if schools lost money to charter schools.
But advocates of charter schools say public education will benefit: charters schools are public; they're open to all students and there is no tuition. In addition, advocates for charter schools claim they are held accountable.
"They are accountable to parents, who always have the option to withdraw their child," reads a statement on the Washington Charter Schools Resource Center's Web site. "This means a charter school that doesn't serve the needs of its parents and children will close for lack of enrollment.
"They are accountable to the government usually through school districts or public universities that authorize them. These authorizers have the ability to revoke a school's charter for good reason at any time."
Even though most states allow charter schools, Washington citizens have been leery in the past and opponents say they think it's because voters have already made up their minds about charter schools.
"The voters in the state know what's best for Washington state," Wood says. "They've directed the legislature to work with what we know works."
Publication date: 10/21/04