By Erik Smith
The big difference between the two candidates for governor this year on K-12 education was something you could hear Friday as Republican Rob McKenna and Democrat Jay Inslee squared off late Friday before the state school directors association. You had to listen pretty closely, though -- it wasn't something anyone said, but rather what one of them didn't.
McKenna has a plan to pump more money into the state's schools. By 2019-21, it will raise some $3.7 billion without raising taxes -- as long as the latest budget projections from the governor's office hold true. Inslee also has a plan, and he also says he doesn't need a tax increase. It's just that how much it would raise and when, and exactly how it would work -- he isn't saying.
In a way the joint appearance before the state's elected school board members offered the clearest delineation yet of the differences between the two on education policy, better than any of the myriad thumbsucker pieces and editorials that have appeared in the press this election season. It wasn't what could be termed a debate -- each spoke for about 15 minutes and then fielded questions from the audience. Attorney General McKenna pushed hard on reform -- offering support for charter schools and a teacher evaluation program considerably stronger than that passed by the Legislature this year. Former Congressman Inslee says he is a no on charters and wants to stay the course on teacher evaluations -- and he said nothing that might have gotten him in hot water with the Washington Education Association, the state teachers' union that has put its money behind him.
But on the big, over-arching issue facing education -- school funding and a recent Supreme Court decision that will require $1 billion in new spending at a time when the Legislature is strapped for money -- you don't find any disagreement on the need for more money. It's just that McKenna's plan appears to be more of a road map; Inslee says you can trust him to get there.
McKenna called it a choice between reform and the same old way of doing business -- a status quo that has delivered platitudes and an ever-shrinking share of the state budget to education, while beefing up spending for Medicaid and state-employee health insurance benefits. "You have got a clear choice here in this election," he said. "On the other side are the forces that have controlled education policymaking in the state for a long, long time, the ones who oppose the kinds of reforms I am talking about. And I am offering you a different path, a new direction for education funding."
Inslee Says He's Different
One of the more striking things about the joint appearance was that the two candidates agreed on something -- that the declining share of the state budget going to education is a problem. Inslee's acknowledgement might be taken as an implied criticism of the spending decisions his party has made during its 28-year lock on the governor's mansion, the longest current winning streak for any party nationwide. The dramatic decline in education spending has become the core of McKenna's stump speeches: Twenty years ago the state spent 48 percent of its budget on K-12 education and 16 percent on higher education; today it is 39 percent and 8 percent respectively. Back then the state spent twice as much on higher education as it did on Medicaid; today the positions are reversed. And the problem has come home to roost in the form of higher college tuition and the Supreme Court's McCleary decision, which held that the Legislature isn't spending enough on basic education. The court basically ordered the state to find the money to implement a basic-education bill it passed without funding in 2009. Cost in the 2013-15 budget cycle is expected to be $1 billion, at a time when the governor's Office of Financial Management maintains that the state already is about $1 billion in the hole.
Inslee said, "I have a plan to backfill what we have lost." It involves health care reform, closing corporate tax loopholes, incentives for green-energy and high-tech businesses, and government-efficiency techniques known as lean management. He advised the audience to check his website, www.jayinslee.com, for further details. Yet there's an important one missing from the website -- a dollar figure. Not even Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire, an ardent advocate of lean management, has dared put a cost-savings figure on the currently-fashionable management approach. She has argued that savings from ending tax incentives are likely to be slim, and that the only way to do the trick is to raise taxes.
Inslee said he could do it -- speaking generally, of course. And he appeared to say he thought prior spending priorities have been a mistake. "We have got to embrace real health care reform so that we can stop draining money out of the educational budget and putting it into the health care budget," he said. "That is what has been going on for the last decade. We have rates of inflation of 5 and 10 percent in our health care budget that should have been going into our educational budget."
He said he is more likely to achieve savings in health care because he fully embraces the Obama Administration's health care reform program. And he said state incentives for selected tech and energy businesses will create new jobs, without saying how many or when. "First we have to diagnose the problem, and the problem is pretty obvious," he said. "There are 300,000 people out of work. When there are 300,000 people out of work, your revenues take a dive over the cliff and you can't finance education. I have an economic development program that will get these people back to work."
McKenna Uses Numbers
It's not that McKenna is dissing lean management or downplaying job creation, though he says the latter might be better served by efforts that serve business as a whole rather than a single corner of the economy. But his education plan depends on neither. At its core it's pretty simple. He would put a cap on spending increases in most areas of the state budget -- 6 percent a biennium, enough to maintain current programs. K-12 and higher education also would get that 6 percent. Everything above that would be directed to education as well. Over time it's going to be a substantial amount.
By holding the line, McKenna is likely to antagonize interests hungry for additional state spending -- particularly social-service advocates and public employee unions. But McKenna said it's a fundamental spending decision. "There are specific things we need to do to bend cost curves in other parts of state government because those other parts in some cases have been growing so rapidly that they have resulted in the cannibalization of funding [for education]."
The key question was put to both candidates by Troy Maxey, a member of the state Board of Education. If the money doesn't come, what's Plan B?
McKenna said it's not so black and white. Current projections from the governor's office show state revenues will grow $11.3 billion within eight years, without a tax increase. Maybe it'll be more, maybe it'll be less, he said, but the growth above the baseline still goes to education. "You can't keep growing non-education spending the way it has been growing and expect to have money available to adequately fund our schools," he said. "It is not going to happen. The governor has said we can't do it without raising taxes. Well, Congressman Inslee and I have both said we are not supporting raising taxes, so we need to live within the means we have. If the forecast is right and we see a 36 percent increase in revenues, that's a lot."
Inslee's answer also managed to avoid the deadly T-word. But it made clear that he is counting on the success of his green-energy and high-tech promotion program. Also on one other detail: Winning the election. "There are only so many plans you can have at a time, but I will tell you what my plan is," he said. "My plan is to be elected governor so that we have a governor who knows economic growth. And I will tell you, I am a governor who knows that."