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A penny for education?

A statewide initiative eyes a higher sales tax for schools.

Islanders Elaine vonRosenstiel and Bill Marler have a new solution to shrinking education dollars:

Multiply one penny times millions of voters and carry the sum to schools.

VonRosenstiel, co-founder of the League of Education Voters, and Marler, a Seattle attorney, hope voters will support a statewide initiative to bolster education funding in Washington. Backers say the measure would raise $1 billion through a one-cent, statewide sales tax, an initiative endorsed by Gov. Locke that could appear on the November ballot.

If voters raise the sales tax from 6.5 to 7.5 percent, the initiative would establish a Washington Education Trust Fund to address long-standing problems in education, including class size and teacher shortages.

“We are very excited about this bold plan for education,” vonRosenstiel said. “It was built with help from the hundreds of people around the state who attended our community meetings, sent us emails, and weighed in one way or another. The (initiative) has been a team effort.” 

The measure would bring about $1.2 million dollars to Bainbridge schools, which rank near the bottom of the state’s 296 school districts in per-pupil funding – some $500 per pupil less than the state average.

“We’d be able to address many of the issues that we have had to set aside for now,” Bainbridge Superintendent of Schools Ken Crawford said. “First and foremost, we could increase the number of teachers.”

The need to find a new source of revenue has acquired more urgency, vonRosenstiel and Marler say, as schools try to serve what will be the largest class in state history, slated to graduate in 2008.

As those students head for college, the need for higher education slots will increase.

“By 2020 we’ll need 100,000 more spaces,” Marler said. “That’s (the equivalent of) two University of Washingtons and another Washington State University.”

A hallmark of the initiative, they says, is its inclusive approach.

Rather than “apply a band-aid” to a localized problem or a targeted age group, trust proponents – many of whom have analyzed the state’s education system for years – want systemic change for K-12 and higher education.

The Washington Education Trust Fund would support:

• 10,000 preschool slots for low-income children;

• 25,000 more enrollment slots in community and technical colleges and four-year universities, and 7,000 additional spaces for students pursuing education in high-demand fields like nursing;

• Class size reduction, full-day kindergarten, before- and after-school programs;

• Teacher training and advanced certification, with emphasis on academic areas where the shortage is acute, such as math and science;

• Help students meet new academic standards;

• Scholarships for the top 30 percent of high school graduates and financial aid for working and middle-class families;

• University-based programs and research that fuel economic development in Washington.

The trust would step into the funding gaps left when I-728, the Student Achievement Initiative passed by 72 percent of Washington voters in 2000 to funnel funds to schools, was eroded by subsequent education cuts by the Legislature.

The proposed trust has been constructed as “bullet-proof,” vonRosenstiel and Marler say, with language that specifies that access to any of the funding by the Legislature is contingent on maintaining current levels of support for education – support mandated in the state constitution since the late 1970s, but consistently eroded.

To ensure local control of the funds, a citizen oversight board would audit programs and report findings to the public

The league conducted extensive polling throughout the state that showed over 60 percent of voters in Washington in favor of a 1 cent sales tax if the money goes to education. But the league and allies will continue to elicit public support throughout the spring and summer.

“We hope that we’ll get help spreading the word,” vonRosenstiel said, “about why we need to support our children and invest in education.” 

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