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It takes guts to cast a ballot

When it comes to very important decisions, such as voting for political candidates or ballot initiatives, I'm a firm believer in "going with your gut."

Using your stomach as a guide doesn't mean you stop using your brain, either. It just means that once you've done your homework, analyzed the facts and are ready to make a decision -- take the gut test.

Let's apply this to the critical choices that those of us who are registered voters will be making in the next month. Does the candidate or initiative you have decided to vote for really fall in line with your values?

Like many of you, I watched the presidential nominating conventions of both political parties. I tried to set aside my political biases (hard to do!) and let my gut do the work. Which speakers gave me optimism for the future of my kids and the world we will leave behind for them? Did their words and tone make my stomach feel nervous and fearful, or calm and positive?

To be perfectly honest, George W. Bush gave me a stomachache.

There are those of you who may have the same reaction to John Kerry, and that's the beauty of our democratic system. But please give me a moment to back up my gut reaction with a few thoughts.

I am very fortunate. My husband and I have a decent income that allows us to comfortably afford food, shelter, clothing and transportation -- plus extras like sports lessons and family vacations -- for ourselves and our children. However, there are so many families who struggle each day to make ends meet. Many parents have lost their jobs. Many more cannot afford health insurance. The economy has dealt them a cruel blow.

I'm certain that's why my gut is telling me to vote for John Kerry. Listening to his speech -- and those of others like U.S. Senate hopeful Barack Obama -- during the Democratic convention, I felt a sense of optimism and hope for our present and our future as Americans. Kerry's commitments to economic renewal, affordable health care and education reform are basic family values that will help all parents do a better job of providing for their children

At the state level, Initiative 884 has particular significance to families, as it supports the education of children from preschool through college.

When researching the pros and cons of I-884, I was impressed with the broad impact of this measure. Not only will it create 10,000 new preschool spaces, reduce K-12 class sizes and raise the base pay for teachers, it also will expand college financial aid and fund 32,000 additional enrollment slots in college.

If approved by voters, I-884 would provide:

  • resources to help all students graduate from high school, including those who are most at risk. Currently, of every 10 kids who start kindergarten, only seven will graduate.
  • more money for teachers, including restoring the pay increase that voters approved through Initiative 732, which was suspended by the state Legislature during its most recent session.
  • preschool education for those who need it most -- 16,000 low-income children. Currently thousands of children are on waiting lists for high-quality preschools, and as a result often start school unprepared.
  • class size reduction, tutoring programs, advanced classes, college counseling and parent involvement.

Opponents of I-884 have several concerns about the measure, including:

  • the fact it would be funded through a 1 percent increase in the state sales tax, moving it from 6.5 percent to 7.5 percent, which will unfairly impact lower-income families.
  • the belief that education funding decisions should be left to the state Legislature and not be mandated through a citizen's initiative.
  • the concern that there is no spending accountability for the substantial funds I-884 would raise (estimated at slightly more than $1 billion in fiscal year 2005-06 and $1.2 billion by 2008-09)

So what does my gut tell me about these arguments? I am certain that the future of our state and our national depends on the education of our children -- there is no more important task. Much of this learning happens before youngsters even enter school, which is why ParentMap has committed to a multi-year community focus on Getting School Ready, including a monthly column of the same name. The goal: to ensure that preschool children are prepared to succeed.

Raising the sales tax is not an ideal solution, but there are few viable options in a state with no income tax. As the I-884 Web site, www.edtrustfund.org, states: "Washington voters have consistently said they think it is the fairest way to fund education because everyone pays sales tax and everyone benefits from improved education."

As for accountability, the initiative provides for an independent citizen oversight board that will monitor the uses and success of the funds and report back to the public. In addition, performance audits will be conducted to ensure that the money is being used effectively and efficiently.

Yes, it would be nice if this issue could be solved legislatively. But I have followed the ongoing education funding battles in the state Legislature, and I have no confidence that lawmakers can adequately address the problem. Washington state's public school classrooms are more crowded than any state except Oregon and Arizona. Federal (No Child Left Behind) and state (Washington Assessment of Student Learning) requirements are in place, and the consequences are severe for the children unable to meet these tougher new standards.

We are running out of time and must do something now.

I hope that our readers do a "gut check" on all the important issues and candidates when they visit their polling place in November or fill out their absentee ballots in the next few weeks. The future of our state, our nation and our children depend on it.™

Teresa Wippel is the managing editor of ParentMap.

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