New schools chief Dorn sees tax increase

OLYMPIA — The state’s incoming superintendent of public instruction says Washington lawmakers are about to get a wakeup call about what it means to do their work during an economic downturn.

Randy Dorn predicted the Legislature will be forced to think about raising taxes to meet the needs of the state, especially because cutting one of Washington’s biggest dollar commitments — education — should not be on the table, he said.

As a former state lawmaker, the new schools chief knows few things may be sacred during a major economic downturn.

Some may say it’s a little too early for Dorn to mention the idea of raising taxes to help bankroll education, but it does make an interesting diversion away from another possibility: cutting the education budget.

On Wednesday, Dorn was quick to point out that the state constitution says education is the paramount duty of the government. He thinks that should take the K-12 budget off the cutting block entirely, but he knows how lawmakers work during a tough budget cycle.

Dorn was anticipating Gov. Chris Gregoire’s upcoming budget proposal, which is expected in the next two weeks.

The governor has promised to balance the budget without raising taxes, so this first take on the state budget for the 2009-11 biennium will call for dramatic cuts in spending to make up for an expected deficit of more than $5 billion.

Dorn said he hasn’t had a chance to sit down and chat with the governor since he defeated 12-year incumbent Terry Bergeson to run the state Education Department. But he believes there aren’t many options.

“We’re going to see a real balanced budget and we’ll see some — not major cuts — dramatic cuts,” Dorn said.

He thinks most lawmakers can’t really picture what a $5 billion deficit looks like, but they’ll get a much better idea when they see the governor’s budget and start hearing from citizens about what program cuts would hurt them.

“It’ll be a real choice of, what are the priorities. And to me there isn’t a choice on what is a priority. The priority’s already been determined by our constitution. That’s the paramount duty. They take an oath of office. It’s pretty simple to me,” Dorn said. “I don’t get to push the button on budgets but I sure can try to influence.”

About 40 percent of the state’s general fund goes to education. In each two-year budget cycle, about $15 billion goes toward the education of Washington’s 1 million schoolchildren in kindergarten through 12th grade. Washington ranks 42nd in the nation in the amount of money per child the state spends in the classroom, according to federal statistics.

Dorn said that since nearly every state is facing a budget deficit, if Washington simply leaves education spending where it is, the state could move up in the rankings.

He has new ideas for spending state dollars, along with some plans for saving money, but for now he seems most focused on avoiding budget cuts and on keeping his campaign promise to get rid of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning.

Dorn said the WASL would be his top priority when he takes office in January. He’s not sure what the state will do instead of the time-consuming and expensive test, but he has some ideas he’s picked up while talking to educators around the state and to government officials elsewhere.

“Everything is on the table,” Dorn said.

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