Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Education reform and state budget the focus of 48th District town hall meeting

Last weekend, a number of Democratic state representatives and senators returned home from Olympia to hold mid-session town hall meetings with the public.

I went to Chinook Middle School to observe the meeting hosted by Senator Rodney Tom and Representatives Ross Hunter and Deb Eddy, who represent the 48th Legislative District, where I live. (The 48th encompasses northern Bellevue, southern Kirkland, much of Redmond, Medina, Clyde Hill, and Hunts Point).

The 48th's delegation does a good job of making meetings fun, no matter how gloomy the public mood may be. We have two very verbose representatives in Rodney Tom and Ross Hunter, who are very witty. They blend sarcasm with sincerity to relieve some of the anxiety surrounding many of these tough issues.

I arrived early and met several SEIU organizers who were handing out fliers and stickers to support funding healthcare in the budget.

As they were setting up the meeting and I was talking with a person from SEIU, Hunter approached them and issued a stern warning. He prefaced it by thanking SEIU for coming out and then declared "This is my meeting". He asked SEIU not to interrupt, noting that he expected many other organized groups to show up at the meeting. SEIU's organizers assured him they weren't there to cause any trouble.

The 48th's delegation began the meeting by distributing packets which included a copy of the 2009 transportation budget, a citizen's guide to the Washington State budget, and a "know your government" pamphlet.

One of the main topics that was discussed at the meeting was the education reform bill that Kathleen has frequently written about for us.

Hunter said the bill (intended to redefine public education) remains incomplete, but the Legislature is two thirds of the way towards the finish line.

The objective is to provide a structural overhaul - the bill doesn't strengthen funding for public services because (as everyone knows) the state is grappling with a massive budget shortfall this biennium.

When it was his turn to speak, Senator Tom explained the framework for education within the budget. First, he talked about class sizes, nothing that the optimal class is comprised of no more than sixteen or seventeen students.

Of course, reducing class sizes is extremely expensive, so it's going to have to be a long term goal. The state also needs to obtain more data, Tom said. (For example, we don't know the average or median class size within the state).

He also brought up CORE 24, a set of graduation requirements that the Washington State Board of Education says is intended to prepare students intentionally for whatever option they choose after high school.

Representative Eddy followed Tom. She served as the meeting's timekeeper, calling on people to take questions. (Eddy, by the way, is the only one of the three who went unchallenged in the last election, although none of the three races were close).

Hunter took the lead in answering questions, which ranged from the WASL (he described it as a test with a purpose) to charter schools (they're off the table, at least for the immediate future).

One of the participants, a thirty one year veteran teacher, commended the Legislature for tacking education reform during a tough session (the toughest in recent memory) and urged Eddy, Tom, and Hunter not to give up.

Senator Tom said the Legislature will come up with an "all cuts" budget that will depict the grim and widespread devastation that would be inflicted upon Washington State's public services without new revenue. The Legislature may elect to give the people of Washington a choice between a destructive budget that undercuts our ability to bounce back economically, or a sounder budget that incorporates additional revenue to preserve our quality of life.

People weren't happy to hear that lawmakers are preparing to lop off entire limbs of state government. Someone even asked how Governor Gregoire's budget is any different than the one Dino Rossi would have proposed.

The discontent with the budget was clearly discernible in the room.

Naturally, the idea of tax reform came up during the discussion about the budget. Senator Tom is for tax reform (gradually moving towards an income tax instead of a sales tax, for example) while Representative Hunter is against it.

Hunter agreed the sales tax is volatile, but he doesn't believe voters will go for an income tax. He's not interested in replacing the sales tax or the business and occupation tax with a fairer, more progressive system.

That's a shame, because we're not going to fix our broken tax structure until our leaders are willing to embrace new ideas and creative thinking. Hunter would do well to remember the job of leaders is to lead, not to follow.

Senator Tom, however, believes that we will eventually adopt a corporate and a personal income tax. It seems ironic that he's the most open minded and progressive voice of the three, considering that he used to be a Republican. (He is notably the sponsor of the Homeowner's Bill of Rights, a top NPI legislative priority).

The budget won't make anybody happy, but at least, in Senator Tom, we have one budget writer who will do all he can to minimize harm. Sadly, without more funding, that's pretty much an impossible challenge at this point.

We at NPI hope the Legislature finds the courage to do the responsible thing and pass a budget that utilizes new revenue to offset damage to our common wealth. If that means going to the voters to ask for more money, then so be it. The people of Washington deserve the opportunity to decide that an "all cuts" budget is not cost effective nor consistent with our values.


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