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Wednesday, October 6, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist

Initiative 884 is the wrong way to fund education in this state

Initiative 884 is about taxes for education. Opponents want you to focus on the taxes; in their voters pamphlet statement they use the word "tax" 18 times. Supporters want you to focus on the word "education." In the voters pamphlet, they avoid the T-word entirely. Only in the rebuttal do they refer to "this one-cent increase" in the sales tax.

A 1-cent increase on 8.8 cents is an 11 percent increase. That's what to expect in Seattle, Tacoma and many cities where the rate would go to 9.8 cents per dollar. In Bothell, Lynnwood and Edmonds it would go to 9.9 cents.

Washington is on the threshold of a 10-percent sales tax.

Already, people are learning to buy their computers, books, music, even their clothing over the Internet, or in Oregon. Already, the savings in tax pays the shipping costs, or the gas for a trip to Portland. The Office of Financial Management in Olympia estimates that I-884 will reduce taxable sales by 1 percent. But it could well be more than that.

Now consider the spending. I-884 arose out of the frustration with initiatives 728 and 732, which were passed in the election of 2000. These ordered the state to spend hundreds of millions each year to hire teachers and raise teacher pay. These initiatives raised no taxes. They appeared in the last year of the dot-com boom, and there was a surplus. The money was on the table, already collected. The two initiatives just had to grab it and spend it before someone thought to refund it to the people.

When the recession came, the money went away. Instead, state government had billion-dollar holes to fill. (It still has.) The Legislature, not wanting to raise taxes in a recession and throttle down the economic engine, voted to suspend I-728 and I-732. Given the size of the gap they had to fill, it was the easiest thing and maybe the only practical thing.

Many teachers felt cheated, and some are still passionate about it. Joe Henry, a health teacher at Chinook Middle School in SeaTac, says, "My profession is falling apart. Every day in the classroom is too much." Henry, a Democratic candidate for Legislature from Federal Way, is a strong supporter of I-884.

It's notable, though, that his party's candidate for governor, Christine Gregoire, is not a supporter of I-884. She says she supports education but is worried that Washington can't stand an extra billion dollars of new tax liability right now. And it's backwards, she says, to start with the idea of a nice round tax and a nice round billion dollars and then parcel it out among public schools, colleges and preschools.

The right way is to list the things the people want done, price them, evaluate them, and decide what to pay for. That is the "price of government" method used last year by Gov. Gary Locke. It's a rational system, and a lot different from spending by voter initiative.

There is another consideration. Like any large institution, public education has entrenched interests, among them administrators and unions. Some of the reforms that might make schools more successful — merit pay, rural-urban differential pay, the right to dismiss non-performing employees, parental choice, a longer school year — are resisted by these interests.

They say, "No. We don't want any of that. Just give us the money." And that is what I-884 does. It gives them the money.

Certainly, some of that spending is justified. But how much, and where? Would spending it all benefit students by $1 billion a year? I don't know. Should voters approve spending $1 billion per year, indefinitely, on a plan written entirely by advocates? I don't think so.

As a parent of a student in public middle school, I can think of some improvements that shouldn't require any money at all. Assigning more and better homework. Spending less time on socially useful propaganda. Resisting parents who press teachers to ease off, and backing up the teachers who hold firm.

Finally, I try to think of a 9.8-percent sales tax. The calculations strain the mind. But I can imagine a 10-percent tax.

Not good.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com. Look for more of his thoughts on the STOP blog, our editorial online journal at www.seattletimes.com/stop

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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