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Sunday, July 22, 2012 - Page updated at 07:30 p.m.
On education, McKenna and Inslee have similar ideas, but charter schools remain a key difference
By Brian M. Rosenthal
Seattle Times political reporter
When it comes to education, this has been an unusual governor's race.
The Republican candidate, Attorney General Rob McKenna, wants to put billions more into K-12 schools at a time when his party has been focused on controlling spending.
And while the Democrat, former U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, also proposes new spending, he's embracing some ideas at odds with the state teachers union, a key ally of his party.
The debate over education has emerged as a central issue in the governor's race, after a series of recession-era budget cuts that have hit local districts and a January state Supreme Court ruling that says the state must do more to fund public schools.
Neither candidate has detailed where he would get the money to boost education spending, beyond finding budget savings in other areas, closing some tax breaks and trying to spur economic growth to increase revenue.
But both have rolled out ambitious — and surprisingly similar — proposals for creating a 21st-century education system with more money, more state programs and the guarantee of an excellent teacher in every classroom.
Each candidate proposes quickly putting $1 billion more into education and channeling some of it first into programs that prepare poor children for kindergarten.
Each wants schools to emphasize math and science.
And, most controversially, each seeks to change the way teachers are evaluated, including by giving principals more power to get rid of teachers deemed ineffective.
There are key differences between the candidates, though, most notably on charter schools.
McKenna supports the public but unconventional independent schools; Inslee does not.
In interviews, education groups that have endorsed a candidate in the race emphasized their differing styles more than specific policies.
McKenna is quick to produce specifics and statistics and is fond of calling Washington an "education-reform backwater," conveying an urgency some feel is necessary.
He's earned the backing of one group, Stand for Children, that has a history of bipartisan endorsements, and also that of the Public School Employees of Washington, a union of 26,000 school support workers.
"We got a much more firm, specific position from Rob that education is his top priority," said Rick Chisa, a spokesman for the union, adding, "He has the smarts and intelligence to refocus our priorities."
Inslee, on the other hand, usually speaks in broader terms and prefers to frame change as a way to "grow the pockets of excellence we already have," indicating to some that he will listen closely to teachers.
He got an early endorsement from the Washington Education Association (WEA), the 81,000-member state teachers union that usually pours money and manpower into supporting Democrats.
"We don't expect any candidate to agree with us on all the issues. But we know that Jay's going to be listening and he's going to bring us to the table," said Mary Lindquist, WEA president. "Any solution that's going to work is one that we're going to work on together."
As for the voters, a SurveyUSA/KING5 poll released last week found they are split on which candidate would do better on education: 35 percent chose Inslee and 34 percent chose McKenna.
McKenna, who traces his education ideas to his time volunteering on the Bellevue School Foundation, describes his education plan as a "bold vision."
His lengthy set of proposals, which his campaign acknowledges would ultimately cost billions, includes many new programs.
But it starts with early education, where McKenna wants to provide subsidies for poor children to get into prekindergarten programs, ensure that public all-day kindergarten is free for all families (it is currently free only for those on free or reduced-price lunch) and reduce class sizes for the earliest grades.
He's also pushing for school buildings to stay open all day and all year so nonprofit groups such as the Boys & Girls Club can host activities for students whose parents work in the evenings.
"Buildings are expensive, and we ought to be using them for a large part of the day," he said.
The Republican is proposing more funding for math, science and technical classes, as well as for accelerated programs.
He wants to establish a superintendent training academy, overhaul the state's principal training and recruitment processes, and give principals more power to run their schools.
McKenna also would allow school districts in which 10 percent or more schools are failing to replace their school boards with a group appointed by the governor, although campaign officials say the specifics are still being worked out.
In large part, his education plan centers on a slew of ideas put forth by the so-called education reform community that believes in dramatic change for public schools.
Those ideas include allowing charter schools, establishing new ways for people to become certified teachers, weakening seniority protections and paying teachers more based on the difficulty of the school they work in and how well their students do on standardized tests. Inslee described many of those proposals as unproven. More broadly, he denounced McKenna's plan as unrealistic.
"I think that my plan is superior for a variety of reasons," said Inslee, although he noted the overlap in their platforms. He said his own plan is "written through consensus as opposed to ideological debates. It's based on accountability and evidence and what actually works. And it's reality-based."
Inslee's plan is less ambitious than his opponent's, and it's focused more on supporting education programs already in place rather than creating new ones. But he said it would produce better results. The research, Inslee said, shows that the most important factor in a child's education is an excellent teacher in the front of the classroom.
To do that, he proposes a model for making personnel decisions that is similar to McKenna's: Student test scores would play a significant role in teacher evaluations, and evaluations would play a significant role in teacher hiring, firing and transfer decisions.
Asked about the definition of "significant," Inslee said that, in some cases, evaluations should outweigh seniority.
That stands in stark contrast to the WEA, which believes that the specifics of how to use student test scores and teacher evaluations in personnel decisions should be left up to collective bargaining between individual school districts and unions.
In addition to evaluations, Inslee's plan stresses the importance of robust mentoring programs in which experienced teachers work with beginners.
"We have to make sure our teachers are trained to teach in the subject they're teaching," he said.
Inslee, who credits his father, a high-school biology teacher, for his thinking on education, would address the school dropout rate by increasing counselors and investing in programs in which teachers visit the homes of students who have not been showing up.
He wants to bring more technology into the classroom by encouraging partnerships with local universities, businesses and nonprofit organizations. And he wants to establish a system in which every school in the state receives a letter grade that's accessible to parents. But he does not support charter schools, which exist in 41 states but have generated controversy for their mixed results and unconventional techniques, including the hiring of nonunion workers.
Inslee says it's not the time to use taxpayer dollars on experimental schools. Instead, he says the state can spur innovation in traditional public schools through a competitive grant system. He points to innovation in existing schools, such as the aerospace-themed Aviation High School in Des Moines.
That position has earned Inslee praise from the teachers union — which opposes charter schools — but left him open to criticism from McKenna, who called Inslee's plan "the plan of the coalition for the status quo."
It "represents more status-quo thinking that is not going to get the job done for our children," McKenna said.
Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.
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