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Sunday, October 14, 2012 - Page updated at 03:30 p.m.

Voters can choose a forward path on education reform

By Kate Riley
Times editorial page editor

Washington state’s education system must change in big ways — and it will, partly by stick and potentially by choice.

The stick is the recent state Supreme Court decision in McCleary v. State of Washington, which declared the state has utterly failed in its paramount duty to adequately fund basic education.

The choice is on the Nov. 6 ballot: Initiative 1240 asks voters to approve a limited experiment with charter schools. In today’s section, The Seattle Times editorial board strongly endorses I-1240, asking voters to provide this tool to help better serve students, specifically those most at risk for failing or dropping out.

Washington state has been behind the curve on this issue — 41 states have charter schools and Washington lost out on a federal Race to the Top grant because it did not.

Charter schools also are an issue in the governor’s race with Democrat Jay Inslee, a former congressman, opposing I-1240 and Republican state Attorney General Rob McKenna favoring. In Washington, traditional Democratic constituencies, including the state teachers union, have opposed charter schools. But lately there has been some division with prominent Democratic funders, such as entrepreneur Nick Hanauer, urging Democrats to reconsider.

The point is, change that serves the most students is not happening fast enough.

The McCleary decision is the bigger challenge for whichever man moves into the governor’s mansion in January. The true heavy lifting will be done by state lawmakers already engrossed in figuring out how to meet the Supreme Court’s mandate of overhauling education funding. The high court has retained jurisdiction, requiring routine updates on legislators’ work.

That’s why Inslee’s criticism of McKenna‘s support for a bipartisan idea to change the education property-tax structure is so disappointing.

In an attack ad and in two debates, Inslee has called the concept — dubbed a levy swap — a “gimmick.” Never mind that the concept is the only plausible suggestion to assuage the court’s displeasure with overreliance on locally generated levy dollars.

Democratic lawmakers immersed in the mechanics of this idea have alternated between puzzled and disappointed in Inslee’s characterization. And The Seattle Times newsroom’s Truth Needle investigation deemed the ad “half true.” Here’s what reporter Jim Brunner concluded:

“Bottom line: The tax swap is a complicated topic — a fact the Inslee campaign is relying on to stoke voter fears.

“Inslee’s attack ad is correct in that the tax-swap concept endorsed by McKenna almost certainly would cause taxes in some places to go up.

“But Inslee is off the mark in dismissing the idea as a mere gimmick with no benefit to schools. And he gets extra demerits for offering no credible alternative.”

The effect of the state's overreliance on local education levies is a disparity between school districts that are property rich and can generate more local levy dollars and those that are poor. Under the swap, the local levy taxes would disappear and the revenues would be transferred to the state, which the court wants in charge of education funding.

But the real damage of Inslee’s line of attack is to undermine the focused bipartisan work now being done to answer the court’s mandate. What if these lawmakers come to agreement across the aisle? Would Inslee veto the bill? Would a riled-up and misled public sink its chances?

That would not be a good legacy for a Gov. Inslee, trying to wrangle a troubled budget and meet the high expectations of justices.

Better for Inslee to raise questions, but not to denounce the concept outright. But, heck, it probably polls well. Even better for Inslee to focus on constructive ideas for how to overhaul the state’s education-funding system. In his ad, he offers only this: “Olympia needs to become more efficient and close loopholes.”

That is the rhetorical equivalent of cricket sounds, for anyone who has observed the deep, painful cuts the Legislature has had to make in the past four years.

On education, Washington needs leadership that is open to possibilities — whether charter schools or the levy swap — that can move the state forward.

Kate Riley's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is kriley@seattletimes.com


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