Assuming Rob McKenna runs for governor in 2012, we can expect to hear a lot about education from him as a candidate. But he's already speaking up on behalf of higher education as the legislature and the governor come down to the wire on budget decisions.
The attorney general made pointed criticisms Thursday (April 14) of the budget treatment of the University of Washington, his alma mater, and other four-year universities. In a discussion with Crosscut writers and editors, he also talked about new directions he would like to pursue in education at all levels.
The Republican bluntly said that the UW is effectively being penalized for its highly successful efforts to increase donations, with legislators acting in a bipartisan fashion to cut state support for both the university and higher education generally. Republicans and Democrats, he said, "are cutting the hell out of the universities."
He offered a two-part prescription. First, he said, state lawmakers and the governor need to "put a floor" on the level of higher-education spending, which he said had once been around 16 percent of the state general fund budget. It appears likely to fall again this year, perhaps toward 8 percent, but he said the percentage should be maintained at the current levels, around 10 percent. Then, after higher education's share of the budget is stabilized, it should gradually be returned toward historical levels as the economy recovers, he said.
He said the state ranks 48th in the production of baccalaureate degrees among the states, and he criticized the "steady defunding of the four-year schools," combined with lesser cuts of community colleges, as extremely harmful to Washington's economic future. While he repeatedly talked about higher education as an economic engine, he also framed the maintenance of public-education opportunities in a larger context. He expressed concern about abandoning a "compact" in which the state's citizens could expect an excellent educational system for their taxes, saying that education is a service that government can do a good job of providing.
Asked about the electability of a Republican as governor (the last one was John Spellman, who left office in 1985), McKenna said, "Republicans need to talk about more issues, especially education. When was the last time that we had a Republican candidate who really talked about education?" He cited Dan McDonald in 1992.
McKenna said the state's unsuccessful efforts to win federal "Race to the Top" money for its kindergarten through 12th-grade system were an embarrassment. He singled out Gregoire for signaling that the Washington Education Association, the teachers union, would have to agree to changes aimed at winning the money. By doing that, McKenna said, she had, in fact, made clear that the state would fail to be competitive. McKenna also said that committing to having the best public schools in the country would attract companies and keep parents, and he pointed to Seattle's John Stanford International School as an example of a school with drawing power among parents.
Crosscut Managing Editor Michele Matassa Flores contributed to this report.