Olympia Report: Vouchers for Schools, Housing Bills, AG Race


Emboldened by its success in putting a slate of conservative ballot measures before the Legislature, a reinvigorated direct-democracy movement is reaching for one of the long-held dreams of the right — public money for private schools. 

Restore Washington has submitted signatures for six initiatives including repeals of the Climate Commitment Act and the capital gains tax along with a significant rollback of the long-term care insurance program. The group announced plans on Tuesday to go directly to the voters¹ this fall with an Arizona-style school choice proposal. 

Arizona’s “empowerment scholarship accounts” let any family in the Grand Canyon State receive about $7,000 in public money per student that can be used to pay for private school. Per the education nerds at the The Hechinger Report,² some 62,000 students took advantage of last fall. The state figures that will swiftly double for an annual cost of $900 million per year. 

Arizona’s Republican-controlled Legislature originally approved the idea only for children with disabilities back in 2011, but expanded it to everyone in 2022, prompting a surge in demand from families unhappy with the ideological bent and/or the educational performance of their public schools.  Thin oversight of the program has Gov. Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, proposing a suite of regulatory sideboards. 

Washington and Arizona are roughly the same size. This idea would carve off a giant piece of the state’s budget and redistribute it into private hands. While that might appeal to many of you, it would come with significant consequences.

Even very limited versions of this idea – broadly known as “school choice” – have been DOA in Olympia for decades thanks to the combined influence of the teachers’ unions and local school districts. Conventional wisdom would have predicted the same fate had such an idea come before voters. Criticisms of such programs abound, from prosaic concerns about gutting school budgets to thorny philosophical and constitutional issues including subsidizing exclusive enclaves for the children of the rich and using taxpayers’ money to pay for religious instruction. 

But COVID changed many things about education politics and fueled a big flight to private schools in Washington State. Pandemic-era remote learning gave parents an unprecedented look under the hood of their public schools, and many didn’t like what they saw. Polarization over exactly what gets taught in public schools is on the rise. Combine that with many public schools’ sad failure to reliably teach kids to read, write, and do arithmetic at grade level, and you have a combustible mix. 

Here’s how things currently work in Washington: Most of the money for schools comes from the state. Most of that money follows the student to whatever public school they attend. If said kid goes to private school, that state money mostly goes away for education purposes but stays in the state’s coffers for other things. Local school taxes stay in the public schools regardless of where the student goes. 

For most families, $7,000 per kid would be significantly more than the portion of their taxes that flows to education; this gives the idea the dual appeal of a tax rebate and the opportunity to fire the local school district. It’s also not nearly enough to cover the cost of many private schools. But it would be free money to the folks who have already made this decision, some of whom are extremely wealthy and many of whom would prefer not to pay for something they have already deemed unworthy of their children. 

Will this make it to the ballot? Restore Washington’s success collecting signatures last year had a lot to do with the $6 million-plus poured into paid petitioning by Republican megadonor Brian Heywood’s related PAC, Let’s Go Washington. We’re told Heywood would likely be on board for school choice as well, but there are other deep pockets – including some household names in national Republican politics – who might chip in. They’d need to gather some 400,000 signatures between a planned launch next month and July 3 to put the measure before voters in November. 

–Paul Queary

Here come the housing bills

As the Year of Housing evolves into the Biennium of Housing, lawmakers are already filing a flurry of follow-up legislation.

First up is House Bill 2039 from Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Seattle, which aims to streamline the often vexing process of environmental review, something that’s become a common weapon to stall housing projects. The bill would expedite the whole affair by consolidating the appeals process and redundant court motions that keep cases like these glued to a legal merry-go-round.

This notion seems like another shot across the bow at the State Environmental Policy Act, which the Legislature exempted Seattle from until 2025, at least as it concerns residential and mixed-use housing projects. Housing advocates, builders, and realtors have pushed back against the 1971 law for being antiquated and redundant when local building codes nowadays already take stuff like trees, traffic, and stormwater into account.

Middle housing finally happened last year, but lawmakers are thinking about going even smaller this session. Enter co-living housing. House Bill 1998 from Rep. Mia Gregerson, D-SeaTac, would legalize co-living housing in more neighborhoods—think adult dorms or glorified communes. The bill’s aimed at shoring up affordable shared domains for college grads, hard-pressed seniors, and cash-strapped transplants getting on their feet.

HB 1998 would severely restrict cities’ power to require off-street parking mandates for such housing. If passed, the bill would kick in six months after a city’s next comprehensive plan update. That happens to be this year for most Washington cities west of the Cascades, including Seattle. So this bill is operating under a narrow window indeed.

We also have House Bill 2071 from Rep. Davina Duerr, D-Bothell, which would task the Building Codes Council with drawing up an exhaustive blueprint for more energy-efficient sixplexes, reworking a wealth of technical minutia from minimum setbacks to roof heights by July 1, 2026.

Add those newcomers to a variety of housing bills sitting on the back burner from last session, including the lot-splitting bill and the REET tax proposal. If you were excited about last year’s transit-oriented development bill, we may have some bad news for you.

–Tim Gruver

A gun-rights Republican gets into the AG race

Pasco attorney Pete Serrano, who runs the Silent Majority Foundation, has jumped into the race for attorney general, which figures to make that contest largely about gun control and gun rights if he makes it through the August primary. Silent Majority also likes to rumble with the government over vaccination requirements and other COVID-related issues.

But its featured fights are mostly about gun control, including the Legislature’s recent moves to ban high-capacity magazines and untraceable “ghost guns.” Serrano joins former U.S. Attorney Nick Brown and Sen. Manka Dhingra, both Democrats, in the race to succeed Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who is running for governor. 

The last Republican to run statewide on the 2nd Amendment was Loren Culp, who took a historic beating in the 2020 governor’s race. But there’s some question as to whether he was trying to win. The last GOP candidate to actually win the office was Rob McKenna, a somewhat different brand of Republican who left office in 2013 after an unsuccessful — although much closer — bid for governor. 

–Paul Queary


  1. Restore Washington’s current slate are all initiatives to the Legislature, which give lawmakers the option of passing the measure or measures in question. This one would be an initiative to the people, which bypasses the Legislature entirely.
  2. The nerd in question here is Neil Morton, formerly of The Seattle Times, who watches Washington, Arizona, and other western states for Hechinger. 
Paul Queary
Paul Queary
Paul Queary, a veteran AP reporter and editor, is founder of The Washington Observer, an independent newsletter on politics, government and the influence thereof in Washington State.


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