As a "debate," the joint appearance of gubernatorial candidates Jay Inslee and Rob McKenna at a Thursday breakfast in Seattle was a dud. Each was interviewed separately by Enrique Cerna of KCTS-9, and both stayed well within the bromide zone before the roomful of school supporters. The Alliance for Education, which funds and cajoles Seattle Schools, hosted the large breakfast, filling the Sheraton ballroom.
But the subtle signals were significant. Inslee, a Democrat with strong support from the teachers' unions, used the occasion to indicate an important shift in his position. He has generally toed the union line that student performance should not be a factor in evaluating teachers, while McKenna is firmly in the reform camp on that issue. This time, Inslee said the evaluation system being considered by the Legislature should be "a significant part of the decision in hiring and firing and [reduction in force] decisions.” Josh Feit in Publicola.com interpreted the shift as "a big change." Or was it just a head-fake?
The remark passed quickly, but it perked up ears among the many veteran school activists in the room. It's an indication of how much Inslee has been going to school with the reformers, perhaps finding a way to inch away from his earlier skepticism about accountability reforms for teachers.
Also significant was how well Inslee did with this crowd compared to McKenna. Inslee had more energy, connected better, and deployed biographical details (his father was a teacher and coach in the Seattle School system). McKenna was wonky and uninspiring. By contrast, at a small breakfast in Madrona the morning before, which I also attended, McKenna had more time to warm to his subject and gave an impressively thought-out version of his education platform. One interesting point he made was to stress the need for better-trained principals, who do the evaluating, rather than just blaming the teachers; McKenna said teachers who distrusted the ability of time-pressed principals to make good evaluations "have a point."
At the Alliance breakfast McKenna said he was proud to be in a political contest where the state of public education was the central issue. So far it is, but it may not stay that way. McKenna clearly wants to make education his big issue, promising to fund education (including colleges) more than his Democratic opponent, and also to go farther down the path of reform, modern management, and outcomes-based programs. It gives him a clear appeal to moderates and suburban independents — key votes for a Republican to get in a Democratic-leaning state.
Politically, Inslee could decide to bury the issue by pretty much hugging McKenna's positions, so that the differences are muted and the public moves on to other factors. The other choice is to engage in a bidding war, raising the promises-stakes on this issue. From the evidence of the Alliance breakfast, Inslee is maneuvering to bury the issue, smoothing the differences.
Both candidates are vulnerable on the education issue. McKenna is talking about getting state funding for K-12 and colleges back toward the peak in the early 1990s of two-thirds of the state budget. But as a Republican he doesn't favor taxes, saying the voters have spoken loudly on that front. Inslee's problem is that he doesn't want to talk so much about reform as to frighten off his union base.
Education activists in the reform camp feel comfortable that McKenna is a convert. Now they are clearly working hard on Inslee, who is said to have been surprised at how deep the split is in the state Democratic party between pro-union Democrats and pro-reform ones. This session of the Legislature has mostly displayed how the no-reform-now Democrats, led by Speaker Frank Chopp, have dug in their heels. But Inslee knows that to get soft Democrats and independents he will have to put some visible space between himself and the union leaders who jumped to his support early in the campaign. This week, almost with a wink, he put a sliver of daylight on display.
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