What's got into Gov. Gregoire?

The cautious old Gregoire gets a disappointing report on higher education, while the impatient new governor suggests overturning the whole educrat apple cart.

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Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire. (State of Washington)

The cautious old Gregoire gets a disappointing report on higher education, while the impatient new governor suggests overturning the whole educrat apple cart.

Does our state suddenly have a "reform governor"? It would be surprising, given all the years that Chris Gregoire has been enmeshed in Olympia culture, as department head, attorney general, and governor. Her style has been to push it, but to work within the system. Now there are conflicting signals.

Take education. On Wednesday, the governor unveiled a sweeping proposal to shake up educational governance. She would create a comprehensive education department, supervising public schools and higher education, with a director reporting to the governor. This would replace, assuming voters are willing to amend the state constitution, the elected Superintendent of Public Instruction (currently Randy Dorn, by no means a team player with Gregoire) and numerous other semi-autonomous entities. Dorn immediately blasted the idea: big surprise.

The proposal makes good sense, even if it is politically stillborn. As it is, the Superintendent of Public Instruction is largely a captive of the teachers' unions. These low-on-the-ballot jobs are easily captured by the bodies they are supposed to supervise, become repositories for empire-building bureaucrats, and greatly clog up chances for reform. The Higher Education Coordinating Board, set up originally to buffer the universities and the legislature, explaining the ways of each to the other, has also become more of an impediment, not trusted by either side, than an agent of effective change.

Still, good luck on this one, Governor. The very factors that make these entities resistant to reform make them almost impossible to abolish.

A conflicting signal came, also this week, with a report from a blue ribbon panel on higher education. This group, dominated by business leaders, mostly dusted off the same proposal that failed at the Legislature last session: let universities set higher tuition. Its new feature was an endowment, funded by business contributions that earn a partial tax credit, to provide scholarship support as tuition rises fast. This ploy, another way of putting money from the general fund into higher education, is unlikely to get anywhere in the current budget crisis.

Here's a good example of the objections from Olympia to tuition increases not tied to deeper reform. It comes from a Publicola op-ed by Rep. Marko Liias, a Democrat from Edmonds:

"Before we get to giant tuition increases, let’s start with a performance audit of administration and overhead. Next, let’s rethink the linkages between K-12 schools, community colleges and our universities. And finally, rather than tying tuition rates to state spending, let’s tie state spending and tuition to performance."

The blue-ribbon panel proposals also did little to address deeper structural issues in our state's system: duplicated programs, an excess of community colleges, a resistance to more productive, online-based systems of instruction. I asked one key legislator why the report was so disappointing, and he said he figured the panel knew that the governor was not that keen on saving the universities, that the timing in a recession was awful, and so just ratified some ready ideas lying about.

That's more standard operating procedure for Gregoire: appoint a panel of conventional worthies, make sure all the interests are there to protect themselves and geld any painful suggestions, and then watch this fluffy package die a natural legislative death. (Speaker Frank Chopp is a skilled undertaker.) In this, she resembles her predecessor, Gov. Gary Locke, who made an art form of weighing in last.

Another, more hopeful explanation, is that Gregoire is tired of all this pussyfooting, realized that her blue ribbon panel wasn't going to dare greatly, and moved herself to the new proposal to blow up the whole system — effectively marooning the blue ribboneers. If so, this is a strange way to get the education forces on board for a passage over rough waters. 


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