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Originally published March 6, 2012 at 9:50 PM | Page modified March 6, 2012 at 11:11 PM

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State GOP's schools plan is same old hacking

Republicans in Olympia have been talking up their commitment to spend more on education, but when they got the chance they didn't follow up.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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The words have been like music to my ears.

"We need to go back to a state commitment where public education receives the kind of share of the budget it got when we were in school," said the state's top Republican, Rob McKenna.

"We must stop the erosion of state support for higher education," echoed state Sen. Michael Baumgartner, the GOP candidate for U.S. Senate. He put in a bill in January that would increase funding for state universities by an astonishing 32 percent — nearly a billion dollars.

"Our state constitution is clear: Education is the 'paramount duty,' " said state House Republicans when they released a plan calling for more school spending. To underscore it, they named their budget "Fund Education First."

All of this is right on key — and refreshing coming from the usually slash-happy Republicans. It's a disgrace that my generation and the one before mine reaped the benefits of amply funded schools and colleges, and then said "thanks!" by allowing the entire system to wither.

But local Republicans have sung this new song of theirs from the political wilds. What would they actually do if they ever found themselves in charge?

Last weekend we got a sample. When it comes to education, it wasn't so sweet.

For eight hours Republicans pulled off a palace coup, wooing a few Democrats to their side in order to take control and pass their own budget. Democrats brayed about the indignity of it all, but that was cover for their own embarrassment. Republicans did what you're supposed to do in politics: Seize the moment.

A "political earthquake not seen in 25 years" was how this newspaper described it.

So what did the GOP do with its earthquake moment?

They slashed education!

Compared with the Senate Democrats' budget, the one they rebelled against, Republicans cut $39 million more from the already beleaguered state university system — almost all of it from tuition help for students.

Their budget spends $88 million less on K-12 schools, including eliminating $28 million for smaller class sizes in high-poverty elementary schools and a big cut to the popular Running Start college-prep program.

Plus, they seek to cancel, permanently, two initiatives backed by voters that said small classes and higher teacher pay are among the state's top priorities.

I asked a couple of Republicans: Is this what it looks like to put education first?

Baumgartner said, "If I had my druthers, we wouldn't cut anything from higher education." But he says he voted for a budget he doesn't much like in order to take a stand against a Democratic "gimmick" — an accounting shift that borrows money for schools from future years.

Another word for it, though, is "loan." It's something most of us will take out from time to time when we can't pay all the bills immediately.

It's true too much borrowing can lead to trouble. But the amount the Democrats want to borrow — $340 million — is just 2 percent of the $16 billion annual budget. Not that big a deal. To me, it's better than hacking away yet again at the schools.

But Joe Zarelli, the Senate Republicans' budget chief, said all the education-spending ideas, including those from his own party, simply must wait for better times.

"I'll take the bullets for it, but I try to operate in reality," he said. "I don't know how you manage a $1.2 billion deficit problem without everyone taking some kind of cut."

Well, you could manage it like the Senate Democrats did. Their budget didn't cut a dime from education. Republicans say they will do this — "Fund Education First." But when they had the gavel, "first" changed to "at some later date."

"We've got to stop the bleeding first," Zarelli said.

Got it. Now that's a Republican tune I'm more familiar with.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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