When Attorney General Rob McKenna spent time with Crosscut writers recently, he made it pretty clear that the main theme of his likely race for governor in 2012 will be reforming education. He favored restoring funding levels for the state's research universities, rather than just cutting them adrift with more tuition authority. And he said our K-12 public schools should be "the best in the nation."
There were not a lot of specifics yet, but McKenna, a center-right Republican, was sharply critical of how Gov. Chris Gregoire had given the teachers' unions veto power over the kind of changes the state entertained in order to improve its standing in the federal "Race to the Top" money-chase. It's clear McKenna, like many Republican governors, would throw down some stiff challenges to the stand-pat educational bureaucracy, and is tired of let's-talk-more approaches to reforming the schools.
Politically this makes sense, since it would put any Democratic opponent in the awkward spot of needing to retain teacher support by pooh-poohing or postponing serious reform about how teachers are hired, promoted, paid, and evaluated. Another wedge issue would be charter schools and vouchers, where the long Democratic lock on Olympia has kept the state charter-free. McKenna seems likely to temper his criticism of public employees and their unions, unlike the probably self-defeating politics of Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin. That way he's not fighting for reform on two hot battlefronts. The teachers' unions will be plenty enough of a political foil.
Education is an issue, along with the environment, that resonates well in the vote-rich Puget Sound suburbs and smaller cities, where McKenna will have to attract enough independents to overcome the Democratic tilt of the state. Reform of education is also high on the list of the business agenda, unhappy with how much retraining of workers it must do, and the shortage of qualified employees.
For an indication of what a GOP reform agenda might look like, take a look at the comprehensive approach of Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana, a possible presidential candidate and one known for his ability to implement strong reforms without too much uproar. Daniels was in D.C. today taking a victory lap for his education matters, touching off another round of presidential speculation. An article in the conservative The Weekly Standard provides a handy menu of his strong medicine:
1. Universal choice. The state last year made it possible for any family to transfer from one public district to another.
2. Broadening vouchers according to need. Normally vouchers only apply to students in failing schools; in Indiana all students from poor and lower middle class families, regardless of schools they are in, can get vouchers, K-12. After two years there will be no limit on the number of vouchers offered, so long as families meet the income tests, and the amount for high school tuition will have no cap (greatly and deliberately favoring the top prep schools).
3. Making it easier to expand Indiana's current 60 charter schools. One new feature will allow parents to "trigger" conversion of failing schools to charters.
4. "The Daniels reforms end tenure for new teachers, establish merit rather than seniority as the basis for pay increases, and include objective student performance as one element in evaluating teacher performance."
5. Limiting collective bargaining to teacher pay and benefits.
McKenna would need to calculate how much of this deep-change agenda he favors and the voters could swallow, and how much he wants to frighten the teachers into ferocious resistance. He will likely be the poll-leading candidate all through the campaign, so he would also be tempted to sit on that lead and mute the rhetoric.
As for how much of this kind of reform he could enact as governor, much would depend on whether the GOP is able to gain control of at least one chamber of the Legislature. In turn, the Democrats' ability to withstand a national conservative tide might turn, as it did in 2010, on whether the race of Sen. Maria Cantwell is close (producing big efforts by Democrats to get out the vote) or a yawner. Sen. Patty Murray's seemingly close race against Dino Rossi in 2010, with the fate of the U.S. Senate in the balance, scared thousands of Democrats to the polls, saving Murray's seat and Democratic control in Olympia.
Regardless of all this political positioning, it's well to remember than McKenna is both conservative and principled, not a mushy centrist. While at the King County Council he took lonely stands against Sound Transit (he's a bus-guy, not a rail-guy). Given the chance at the Crosscut lunch to mend fences, now that Sound Transit is running light rail, he didn't give an inch, saying the disappointing ridership figures on light rail only confirm his stance.