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McKenna tries to draw some sharp differences on education

Jay Inslee, left, and Rob McKenna at a debate. Credit: State of Reform

One of Rob McKenna's bigger education reform proposals has not seen much press. That's a proposal to allow the governor or superintendent of public instruction to appoint replacements for an elected school board in a district with 10 percent or more failing schools.

McKenna's proposal does not define what "failing school" means.  In a phone interview a few weeks ago, the Republican gubernatorial candidate said that the definition of "failing" would be determined by criteria set by either the state legislature or the  the superintendent of public instruction.

Mary Lindquist, president of the Washington Education Association, criticizes that proposal because such a replacement board would not be accountable to the voters of that school district.  "It's insulting that you'd take schools away from the public. … It seems to me that Rob McKenna doesn't trust the public to make good decisions."

McKenna replies that if local control leads to students failing, then the state should step in. "We've got to get beyond the current culture of not offending adults," he says.

McKenna's Democratic opponent Jay Inslee has been fairly silent on this McKenna proposal, perhaps leaving it to the WEA to deliver the darts. Inslee does have a rejoinder, though. He proposes "intervention teams" if less than 90 percent of a high school's students graduate, according to Inslee spokewoman Jaime Smith.

And so it goes in this election, with inslee and McKenna offering significantly different choices for improving Washington's schools. But you have to look closely to find these differences, since Inslee normally offers a modified me-too to McKenna's more specific and less teachers-union-friendly proposals.

Still, the issues are not going away, even if one side downplays them. Regardless of who gets elected, the legislature will be in the thick of education issues next year because of a several-months-old Washington Supreme Court ruling , dubbed the "McCleary" decision, which declared the state is not meeting its consutitional duties. The budget clock is ticking loudly.

Each candidiate has his backers in the education community. The Washington Education Association, the state's teachers union, has endorsed Inslee. Stand For Children, a reform coalition, has endorsed McKenna.

Stand for Children, which endorsed Democrat Gov. Chris Gregoire in the past, interviewed both candidates. "For us, McKenna had a lot more depth," says Shannon Campion, the organization's executive director. She described Inslee as somewhat going through the motions during his interview, while McKenna tossed out  more facts and showed more passion. "We got the sense from McKenna that education is a priority. He has a track record of involvement with schools and of getting things done in Olympia," she believes. "McKenna seemed to be more of a change agent, a leader. Inslee, we suspect, would be more of the same. … We're less concerned about McKenna walking out on education or wimping out on it."

Stand For Children backs charter schools, which McKenna supports and Inslee opposes. Campion says that was a factor in Stand For Children's endorsement, but not the deciding one.

The WEA, which opposes charter schools, endorsed Inslee early. Its leaders interviewed Inslee and invited McKenna for an interview.  McKenna turned down that request, saying that the Democrat-oriented WEA would endorse Inslee no matter what he would say. "I thought Mr. McKenna's remarks were over the top" about turning down the interview request, Lindquist says. She noted that the WEA in the past endorsed Puyallup's Bruce Dammeier, a leading Republican on education matters, for state representative.

"McKenna talks about things that are not going to make a difference in the classroom. We're not going to have solutions by people throwing out the reform de jour. I don't know how you don't respect the people who work every day with children. He won't talk with them. He won't meet with them," Lindquist.contends.

The WEA's priorities are more money for more teachers and smaller class sizes, she explains. Both Inslee and McKenna have discussed smaller class sizes in Grades K-3, an age in which experts say key fundamental learning needs to take place with results rippling into the higher grades. "So much brain development occurs in that age span," Lindquist says. Inslee's plan stresses this plank a little more than McKenna's proposal.

In the early 1990s, funding for K-12 education made up 48 percent of the state's budget. That dropped to 39 percent in 2005-2007, rebounding to 44 percent in the current biennium. The McCleary court ruling estimates that at least $1 billion in extra money will be needed for education in 2013-2015. Both candidates argue that the extra money can be raised without raising any taxes or seriously cutting any other programs. Gregoire and the state budget office have pooh-poohed that notion by both candidates.

McKenna's plan for meeting McCleary is to increase education portion to almost 50 percent by 2019-2021. This would be partly done by trimming the broader government's workforce by attrition, tackling efficiency matters, and shifting state employees to lower-cost insurance plans. The legislature has been attempting to do this for years, without success. Inslee's proposals are less specific but similar.

In addition, McKenna's plan would swap state education levies for local levies. The levy swap is supposed to stabilize some property tax revenue for local school districts, but is not expected to raise extra money. McKenna expects 6 percent in state revenue growth each biennium due to predicted increases in inflation, population, and economic growth. The total expenditures for all non-education programs would be held at 6 percent growth. Any revenue growth beyond 6 percent would be channelled to K-12 education. McKenna declines to say where state programs would be cut if his revenue scenarios don't materialize.

Inslee also has an education plan, but he is vaguer than McKenna on how to raise the extra $1 billion in 2013-2015. Mostly Inslee is banking on a hoped-for improved economy., as well as imposing lean-management techniques on state government.

The conflict getting the most press has been charter schools, even though they would have only a slight impact on the state, if allowed. Washingtonians will vote in November on whether to experiment with charter schools. If Initiative 1240 passes, the new governor will have to lead the concept's implementation. If I-1240 loses, charter-school bills could surface again in the 2013 legislative session.

Under this concept, a non-profit corporation bids to run each charter school, which remains under public jurisdiction. (In the battle over framing the issue, advocates like to speak of "high-quality public charter schools.") The non-profit corporation would have significant leeway in how to run its school. For example, a teacher in a needed speciality could be paid extra when hired, as opposed to being paid according to a union contract with seniority and education credits being the biggest factors in a teacher's wages. Or pay increases could be based on merit rather the seniority. School hours could be longer.

Supporters argue that charter schools have good track records elsewhere in the 41 states that allow them; that they are aimed primarily at disadvantaged children; and that they use only the public money that would ordinarily go to fund students who voluntarily transfer to charters. Advocates say the charter schools would have adequate public supervision. "I think it's ridiculous that Washington is one of the few states not to have it," McKenna says.

Opponents argue that studies show that many charter schools have done poorly; that trimming red tape for a few schools should be replaced by eliminating the same red tape for all schools; and that the non-profit corporations in charge of charter schools would not be adequately supervised by taxpayers. And they contend charter schools would siphon money and good students away from public schools.

"It's going to draw attention from bigger problems. It gives you a false sense of security that you've done something," Lindquist says. Inslee also doesn't like the idea of charter schools, saying that there is already provision for "innovation schools" in current contracts. (Few have been enacted, however.)

Merit-based and performance-based pay were also high-profile controversies in the spring, but they have been lost in the campaign so far. McKenna supports the idea of linking pay to meeting performance goals in education. Inslee is luke-warm, though he bucks the WEA line a bit by favoring some links between student performance and teacher evaluations and promotions and layoffs. Inslee likes the idea of extra pay for master teachers who mentor other teachers.

Lindquist argues that studies have not shown a correlation between merit pay and better student performances, and that merit pay sets up teachers competing with each other for finite pools of money. "Teaching kids is a team sport," she says.

Running for governor on education issues is, by contrast, definitely a contact sport. Whether it heats up in the general election will depend on polling and on how well Inslee continues to diffuse the issue. McKenna is staking his appeal to independents and soft Democrats on education issues, sounding the reform bell. Inslee wants to blur the differences, hold fast his teachers' union base, and shift the topic to his plans for an innovation economy.

Judging by the primary results at least, the Inslee tactic seems to be working. 

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