A modest, constructive idea

As she signed her final state budget earlier this month, Gov. Chris Gregoire delivered a sharp message to the two leading candidates to succeed her:

“There is simply not enough money in our current revenue stream to keep up with the cost of educating our young people so they can compete in the 21st century.”

It was an unsubtle jab at fellow Democrat Jay Inslee and Republican Rob McKenna, gubernatorial hopefuls who have both said a new tax source for education isn’t needed. Enhanced revenue from an improving economy, directed toward education, will supposedly be enough.

That may be the wisest stand politically, given the electorate’s recent distaste for new taxes. (At the depth of the economic downturn, even a very modest tax on soda and candy was repealed by voters.) Yet it all but ignores the reality of the state Supreme Court’s decision in the McCleary case, which directs the Legislature to fully fund basic education — as the Legislature itself has defined it — by 2018, using a sustainable funding source.

We agree that money alone won’t deliver a world-class education to all of Washington’s students. The fact that better than 1 in 4 students don’t graduate from high school on time isn’t just a funding issue. Innovation has to be part of the solution.

Yet Washington has long resisted bold efforts for change in education, whether pushed by business groups or bipartisan coalitions of teachers, parents, community leaders and other education advocates. Still, such a group has organized for one more try, this time filing an initiative to allow a limited number of public charter schools.

It’s hardly a radical proposal, but reaction from the state’s largest teachers union, the Washington Education Association, was swift and dismissive. The union has led three successful fights against charters at the ballot box. Its opposition stems in part, no doubt, from the flexibility charters have to hire and fire staff.

The WEA’s position has support among many Democrats. In a scathing email to Guy Palumbo, a centrist Democrat challenging fellow Democrat and Senate Education Committee Chair Rosemary McAuliffe this year, 1st Legislative District Democratic Chairman Nicholas Carlson charged that “anybody who supports charter schools in the 1st Legislative District is a Republican, not a Democrat.” (That had to come as news to President Barack Obama, an outspoken supporter of charters.)

Backers of the new charters initiative have little time to gather signatures to qualify for the November ballot, but Crosscut.com reported that they’re anticipating major donations from some leading education reform advocates — $4 million from Bill and Melinda Gates and $1 million from Nick Hanauer, a major Democratic donor.

If the WEA and its legislative supporters think they can win increased funding for education without significant reform, they’re dreaming. If voters are to go along with a new, stable funding source to meet the McCleary mandate, they’re going to have to be convinced the money will be spent effectively.

That requires a willingness to try new approaches, not stubbornly clinging to the status quo.

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